Well past party time on a Friday evening, the habitual nuisance of shrieking women, stumbling in heels out in the hallway of an apartment building, arose three residents from their slumber.

It was nothing unusual to hear people unknowingly using their ‘outside voices’ as they schlepped home from a night out. In fact, few residents would be surprised if someone told them the doors were made of plywood and the walls were paper maché.

It is a mundane task to fall back asleep after a group of partygoers disturbs one’s otherwise quiet room. But this time, the three residents would not go right back to bed.

The shrill screeching of what sounded like three women was not the usual clamor.

Three apartments doors creaked almost simultaneously like curtains being pulled at the start of a show. The residents stayed within their thresholds but craned their necks nosily out into the hall. Two women raced up the stairs and the third trailed behind slopily screaming profanities at the others. The back and forth of insults that called the residents to the scene had subsided by now.

The solitary woman passed without making eye contact and blurted, “just go,” to her audience. “Just go,” she repeated, quivering. She paused at the first stair landing and slumped against the railing. She took in quick breaths of air, either calming herself down or crying.

Bewildered expressions smeared across the resident’s faces as they all watched her, and then met one another’s eyes. The voices of the other two girls faded away up the stairs.

Words of comfort and concern rushed to the lips of the residents, two of them half-opened their mouths, angling their chins toward the girl to say something, but their eyes are locked on one another. They both had something to say but waited for the other to go first.

Someone poked their head out from their room within one of the apartments and asked if everything was okay, but nobody knew the answer. Their eyes all darted back to the stairs when the sound of a door slamming a few floors up commanded their attention.

The crying woman was gone.

The residents looked at one another once more. Someone suggested that maybe they should call someone. Nobody commented back, a few shrugged in confusion and widened their eyes intentionally to appear concerned. Yet, without another word, they slowly allowed their doors to shut, holding down the handles down so they wouldn’t make a sound.

And then everyone returned to sleep.

It is hard to say if anyone knows what happened before this incident, what was going on during it, or what followed it. But one thing is for sure, no acted to find out. They should have said something to her, shouldn’t they? They should have asked what was wrong before she left, or followed her to make sure she was all right, no?

Maybe they should have, and they probably all wanted to. But they were simple bystanders.

The bystander effect is a puzzling societal norm in which people psychologically do not believe they have to get involved. This lack of involvement is called diffusion of responsibility, and it concludes that the more people observing a situation, the less likely any one of them is to get involved. The idea is, if you look around and there are others watching, they will do something so you don’t have to.

There may also be the thought that if no one else is helping, why would you get involved? This is a dangerous phenomenon that has been perpetuated for a very long time.

In a famous case, Kitty Genovese was murdered in 1964. She was stabbed to death right near her apartment building, and the residents who heard her scream and saw her struggle from their windows did nothing.

Her murderer actually left the scene temporarily, and Kitty managed to drag herself to the entryway of an apartment building to hide, but the murderer returned and found her there. He continued to stab her until her death in that building entryway, and someone at the top of the stairs actually opened their door to see what was going on. But they closed it promptly and never said a word.

Maybe it was fear that motivated all these bystanders to stand by. But they all had a telephone they could have picked up to quietly call the police. No one did. They all believed someone else would do it.

This is one of the most well known cases, but it happens all the time, even on a small scale. In Psychology Today, Melissa Burkley describes her student who had a question, but looked around the room before raising her hand to see if anyone else looked confused. When they didn’t appear confused, she put her hand down so as not to look stupid.

There are many terms associated with the bystander effect like mob mentality. But at least mob mentality normally refers to action. The ‘mob mentality’ of the bystander effect is inaction with the hope or belief that someone else will act, or that you don’t have to because no one else has.

There are some who seek to change the pattern. Dr. Phillip Zimbardo has an entire website1 devoted to encouraging individuals to be champions of action. Dr. Zimbardo wants to change the social norm we have developed so that more people will help. Better three people call when something is wrong than none.

Dr. Zimbardo believes this effect can be stopped if individuals who are conscious of this issue devote themselves to being the one to act. If individuals resolve to always do something, something will always get done, and then the social norm of expecting someone else to help should be diffused.

But is understanding what this bystander effect is, and resolving to say something next time one observes a potentially dangerous situation enough? Will individuals actually act next time? Should we be content with the fact that this is how society currently works? Can the cycle be broken?

Hopefully with a spread of awareness and increased consciousness, more people will begin to feel comfortable standing up in day to day situations and subsequently when an emergency situation occurs, though everyone around them is keeping quiet, they will do something.


1 bystanderrevolution.org