Human Behavior Experiments Bystanders and Emergency Situations

About a human behavior experiment to determine whether one is in a group of friend or alone effects his tendency to help a bystander in an emergency.



Title of Experiment: A Lady in Distress: Inhibiting Effects of Friends and Strangers on Bystander Intervention

Conducted by: Bibb Latane and Judith Rodin at Columbia University, New York City

Reported in: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1969), 189-202

Object: Earlier studies had shown that a single bystander was more likely to intervene in an emergency than groups of bystanders. In other words, there is not necessarily safety in numbers: On Mar. 13, 1964, in Queens, N.Y., 38 people witnessed Kitty Genovese's murder. Researchers suggest that such nonintervention stems, not from urban "apathy," but from "social inhibition effects"--factors in the relationship of the bystanders to each other. Latane and Rodin set out to explore these factors further. Would two bystanders who knew each other be more likely to intervene than two bystanders who did not know each other? Would friends move in where strangers feared to tread?

The Experiment: A randomly selected group of 120 Columbia male undergraduates accepted an offer to participate (for a small fee) in a survey of game and puzzle preferences. The students were asked to recommend friends who would also be willing to participate. When a student showed up for testing, a market research representative gave him a questionnaire to fill out. Then the representative retired to her office, divided from the testing room by a collapsible curtain which was easily opened. Each student found himself in one of four situations: he was alone in the testing room; he was with a stranger who was a confederate of the experimenter and who was generally unresponsive; he was with a stranger who was, like himself, a student subject in the experiment; or he was with a friend.

As the student or students filled out their questionnaires, a loud crash and a scream came from the representative's office. "Oh, my god, my foot . . . I . . . I . . . can't move it," she moaned (on tape). Further moaning and, finally, recovery continued for a total of 130 seconds. In a subsequent interview, students were asked about what they had heard, their reactions, and why they had acted or not acted to help the representative. Then they were told the experiment's real purpose.

Conclusions: Although all students said they believed the market research representative had really fallen and hurt her foot, not all did something about it. As in previous experiments of this kind, the most helpful bystanders were those bystanding alone; 70% of them offered the victim help. The least helpful were students in the company of the unresponsive confederate; only 7% of those students intervened. If the pair of bystanders were both student subjects and strangers to each other, at least one of them offered help in 40% of the trials. The odds for two friends helping appeared to be about as good as the odds for a single bystander; at least one of the friends helped out in 70% of such cases. However, Latane and Rodin pointed out that since there were two people free to act, the rate should have been higher. Consequently, friends, like strangers, do inhibit each other from acting, although not as much so.

Latane and Rodin offered two explanations for a bystander's hesitance to intervene when he is with someone else: "social influence" (each bystander may hide his uncertainty about what to do by trying to appear poised; the other bystander is thus encouraged to believe the situation is not serious) and "diffusion of responsibility" (if a bystander turns out to be wrong in not acting, at least he shares the responsibility). Friends may be less likely to hide their feelings or put their responsibility off on each other. The results of the experiment may explain why large cities seem less safe than small towns. There are too many strangers in cities. "If you are involved in an emergency," concluded Latane and Rodin, "the best number of bystanders is one."

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