In 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was killed in her apartment building in New York City. Winston Moseley, the attacker, followed her to her apartment building and stabbed her. Kitty screamed: “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” Several neighbours heard the screams, but almost none of them really interfered. One of them shouted at Moseley: “Let the girl alone!” The latter ran to his car and drove away, while Kitty was severely injured in the building’s hallway.
10 minutes later, Moseley came back and finished his crime, which allegedly lasted for half an hour. This unfortunate incident was the primary reason behind creating the 9-11 emergency system.
There were 38 witnesses who either saw the attack or heard Kitty’s calls for help, but none of them interfered or even called the police. This incident, although extremely unfortunate, led to an interesting question: why didn’t anybody help Kitty?
The idea is now known as the “bystander effect.” It explains how the presence of other people could discourage a person from providing his or her help in a situation. People might be unsure whether the situation is an emergency in the first place, and if this is the case, they are less likely to interfere. This is called pluralistic ignorance, and the best way to avoid it is by making it clear that you need help, just like Kitty did when she cried for help. Unfortunately, this is not the only reason why people choose not to help. Another reason is called diffusion of responsibility, which is the concept of “I’m not going to do it because someone else will.” If you find yourself in a situation and you need urgent help, try to call out a specific person: “You! with the blue shirt and black jacket, please call the police!” You will be overcoming the diffusion of responsibility problem by throwing the responsibility on someone’s shoulders.
Interestingly, learning about the bystander effect makes people more likely to help in the future, which is a concept known as “enlightenment effect.”