Is the Fate of the Earth a Question of Psychology?

Flock of Sheep by Petr Kratochvil

In New York, 1964, a horrific murder shocked the local community. Kitty Genovese, 28, was returning home from work to her Kew Gardens apartment when she was followed and attacked. The perpetrator stabbed Kitty in three separate attacks, being spooked away twice, but returning each time to eventually kill her. The assault lasted half an hour in total. Understandably, the murder saddened the local community, but what disturbed people the most was the fact that as many as 38 people witnessed the attack without acting to help her. The emergency services arrived two minutes after they were called, but they were only alerted after Kitty died. The witnesses were her neighbours, some of whom called out to the attacker and later reported hearing Kitty’s screams for help. Police were baffled at the apparent apathy shown by so many of those questioned the following day. One man was reported as saying that he didn’t call the police because he was tired and he wanted to go to bed. Details of Kitty’s death were reported in the New York Times 1.

Image of Kitty Genovese and the NYT headline after she was murdered

Image of Kitty Genovese and the NYT headline after she was murdered

These reactions were so incomprehensible as to inspire a study by leading psychologists to attempt to explain this passive behaviour. The resulting psychological theory, ‘the bystander effect’, could explain our collective failure to act on global emergencies. The bystander effect was demonstrated by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané in experiments conducted in 1964 to test a person’s response to an emergency situation in relation to the presence of other bystanders. 2. They found that in a situation involving a staged epileptic fit, individuals were far less likely to attempt to help the ‘victim’ if other people were around. This was the case whether the ‘victim’ or the subjects tested were male or female.


In 1970, Darley and Latané presented three potential reasons for this disturbing phenomenon following further experiments investigating bystander apathy. They thought that there is a diffusion of responsibility in a crowd situation because everybody feels that someone else should intervene. Individuals in a crowd may fear negative judgement from fellow bystanders if they choose to act in an emergency, or a crowd of people will watch the reactions of other bystanders before deciding if the situation is indeed an emergency, thus delaying intervention. Individuals could be affected by one or a combination of these thoughts. This explains why, despite there being witnesses to the attack on Kitty Genovese, and despite her screaming for help when her attacker fled, nobody came to her aid. Her attacker was able to return to the scene, continue to stab, rape and rob Kitty, and finally flee before the emergency services were called.


The parallels between this horrific murder and our current global emergencies are alarming. Our failure to act in order to prevent the effects of the misuse of antibiotics, climate change, and inequality in food distribution can be explained by the bystander effect. When there are 7.4 billion bystanders, the responsibility for these issues is spread extremely thinly. The Earth is under threat from a multitude of dangers. The scary thing is that the vast majority of these dangers are created by us humans. The REALLY scary thing is that we’ve known about these risks to human life for decades, yet we are slow to react. We were first warned about the dangers of climate change and global warming in 1896. We knew from the very first use of antibiotics to kill bacterial infection that they would eventually become useless. The global food shortage which affects millions of people in third world countries seems to be just another accepted glitch in an otherwise satisfactory world. It is fair to say that the majority of the world’s public are aware of these crises, or at the very least, that country leaders are aware of them. Simple solutions have been suggested to slow down and even solve these terrifying threats. Yet they remain. So if we created these problems in the first place, and we know what to do about them, why are they still problems?


Maybe the answer to all of these global crises is not to understand the causes and solutions of each individual issue, but to understand our seemingly passive response to them. It seems very straightforward to say that we all need to stop using antibiotics to treat viral infections, or that we need to lower CO2 emissions by turning our thermostats down by a couple of degrees, or that we should reduce the amount of meat we eat so that more of our crops could feed people instead of farmed animals. It also seems pretty straightforward to say that if you witness a woman being attacked and is lying injured, then you should phone the emergency services.


Unfortunately, we are still running out of antibiotics, the Earth is still warming, people are still starving, and Kitty died of her injuries. This seems to suggest that the bystander effect is a potential factor behind these crises. Indeed, this idea is backed up by a recent meta-analysis study which compounded half a century of research into the bystander effect, and found that bystanders are even less likely to react in the face of a non-critically dangerous emergency 3. Given that the aforementioned issues are slowly compounding, and may not even affect our present generation, they are clearly not perceived as immediate emergencies.


So what can we do about it? Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne recommends several ways in which we can overcome the bystander effect 4, and her tips can be applied to both immediate emergencies and the slower building global crises. Her solutions show that simply being aware that you are in a situation involving the bystander effect is enough. We need to break the cycle of looking to others to act, and we have to look to ourselves in emergency situations. If you know what to do, do it! If you don’t know what to do, direct other people to help you find a solution. Similarly, if you are the unfortunate victim of the bystander effect, ask an individual for help instead of a crowd. Education is also an important factor in overcoming the bystander effect. If we teach children that certain issues are important, they are more likely to act upon them in the future. The key to solving the world’s problems may simply be to stop being a bystander and waiting for someone else to act. If you can do anything positive to contribute (and we all can), then go and do it. Like, now.

This article was specialist edited by Yulia Revina and copy edited by Matthew Hayhow.



  2. See here for an overview of the full experiment and its outcomes
  3. A link to the Psychological Bulletin paper, which also nicely summarises Darley and Latané’s work, can be found here

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5 Responses

  1. Jordan says:

    It’s clear that the author is a data geek. I enjoy the way he writes
    and writes facts.

  2. I truly enjoyed that one, since it’s full of fascinating facts and it is a sort of article.
    I spent only a couple of minutes reading, and due to well-structured text, I understand it completely.


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