Why People are Afraid to help others

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In 2007, The U.S. Department of Justice (2009) reported that citizens experienced 23 million crimes. Many of these crimes are witnessed by others. The question is how many of these witnesses do anything about the crimes they see. When nothing is done, it is called bystander apathy. According to Dewey (2007), bystander apathy "occurs when witnesses fail to help somebody in distress." Research has revealed that bystander apathy is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Although bystander apathy may be a psychological phenomenon, it may also be a result of the misapplication of society respecting the privacy of others.

Bystander apathy has been around for thousands of years. Anyone who has attended Sunday school may remember the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35 New International Version). In this passage, two individuals, one, a priest, the other, a Levite, passed by a man lying in the street. This man had been robbed, stripped of clothing, beaten, and left for dead. The priest and the Levite did nothing to help the poor man. Sometime later, a Samaritan passed by. He chose to stop and not only help the man but he also "bandaged his wounds," and then "took him to an inn and took care of him." (Luke 10:34b).


Recent history has shown us that it is all too easy to become involved in a legal battle over the simplest of matters. Lack of intervention based on the fear of legal repercussions may very well be a valid argument. For example, a bystander witnesses a woman being assaulted and decides to intervene by hitting the assailant over the head, thus knocking the assailant unconscious. In turn, the assailant sues the bystander for assault or even attempted murder. Aside from possible legal action, there are other causes to consider.

The phrase diffusion of responsibility, coined by psychologists Darley and Latane (1968), has proven to be quite accurate. The phrase simply means that the more people that are present during an emergency or crime, the less willing that one of them will respond. It appears that individually, each person assumes that someone else will take action. Sadly, this is not always the case. Take for instance the case of Catherine "Kitty" Genovese.

Bystander apathy in action
While on her way home late one night in 1964, Genovese was stalked, stabbed 17 times, raped, and left to die. Her cries for help were heard by 38 neighbors, some of which saw her being attacked. At one time, her assailant fled the scene only to return a few moments later to finish what he started. After approximately 30 minutes from the time the attack started, someone finally phoned the police, only it was too late. In the end, Kitty lost her life. She was 28 years old. People all over the globe were flabbergasted by the apathetic condition of her neighbors.

The story of Kitty Genovese quickly became the centerpiece of numerous clinical studies. Gillis and Hagan (1983) "argue that the willingness of people to prevent criminal victimization is affected by two situational components: social distance of the victim from the bystander and the physical distance of the setting from his or her home." They believe that people react differently in various situations. A study conducted by Gillis and Hagan showed that the closer a crime being committed to a person's home, the more willing they were to intervene personally. They also came to the conclusion that "people were more likely to assist victims of personal attack than victims of vandalism." While there is credible data in their research, this was not the case for Genovese.

Among some of the studies conducted, were staged incidents. One of these studies being led by Darley and Latane. In their experiment, the students chosen to participate were separated and put into individual rooms. Each room had an intercom so the student could communicate with the other participants. Some were told that there would be only one other participant. The remaining students were told that there were six other participants. At one point, students thought that they were hearing another student having a seizure. This, of course was part of the experiment. The results reflected that 85% of the students who believed that they were one of two participants choice to help. In contrast, 31% of the students who thought there were four other participants responded. On the surface, this diffusion of responsibility appears to make a person seem cold hearted, indifferent, or even selfish. However, there are other factors to consider.

Becoming a witness to a crime or accident

When we are witness to a traumatic incident, our bodies will sometimes shut down or go into a state of shock. The information taken in with our eyes seems to be unable to connect with our brains, making it difficult to process what is going on around us. Undoubtedly, there are certain events that we witness, that appear to be too surreal to believe; thus, making it hard to react intelligibly. These emotions are not uncommon.

Rasenberger (2006), wrote, "It's generally not stone-cold indifference that prevents people from pitching in during emergencies, psychologists now agree. It's states of mind more familiar to most of us: confusion, fear, misapprehension, uncertainty." Surely, these emotions play a part in the apathetic nature of some bystanders. However, the question remains; does a person intervene or simply turn away? Is it possible to save a life or prevent a crime? When does moral responsibility outweigh confusion and fear? Making a decision to respond to a violent or dangerous situation can be a hard task. On the other hand, not responding can be equally as hard. Whatever decision is made will be with the person for a long time.

Discerning the situation

When deciding if to intervene, the situation needs to be carefully evaluated. For instance, if there is a serious automobile accident, the victim can suffer further damage if handled improperly. The outcome could be deadly. In contrast, deciding to do nothing can be just as deadly. Whether it is chosen to intervene or not, it is undoubtedly a decision that will remain with the bystander for the rest of his or her life. There is a method developed by Beaman (1979), which can be used to help in the decision-making process.

You, the potential helper, must notice an event is occurring.
You must interpret the event as one in which help is needed.
You must assume personal responsibility.
You must then decide what action to take.
You must then take action.

Following these simple steps will help make intelligent decisions. If we take the time to educate ourselves in how to avoid bystander apathy, we will be prepared to lend a hand when needed. It is common to look at those around us to examine their reactions to a violent or dangerous situation. However, if we learn to think rationally, and decide for ourselves what action to take, we will not need to look at others to see if there is validity to the situation. The majority of the time, people are not going to help those in need. It does not make sense to follow suit. We must think for ourselves, and not worry about what someone else is or is not doing. Someone's life may depend on our decision to help.

It was Mother's Day weekend when my family and I were at a red light at the busiest intersection in town. Suddenly, in the corner of my eye, I saw a car fly off the overpass that was over us. The car crashed into the embankment and three young bodies were thrown from the vehicle. Without hesitation, I ran over to the scene and saw that there was little hope. I knelt down beside one of the victims, a young boy, and held his hand. That day, I chose to act. Looking back on it now, I am glad that I did. I may have been the last voice those kids heard. Every situation is different but it is how we respond that defines us. Will we be apathetic, or will we stand in the gap for those who need help?

Albert Einstein once said, "The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it" (Brainyquote, 2009). The world is indeed a dark place at times but light has the power to overcome that darkness. If we will just be that light, and help those who are in darkness, the danger may not be as serious. Bystander apathy may be rooted in the mindset of man, but we should not use that as an excuse to simply stand by and do nothing. What would we want others to do if our lives were in danger?


Beaman, A., Barnes, P., Klentz, B., & Mcquirk, B.

Albert Einstein

Dewey, R. A.
Psyche Web

Darley, J. M. & Latane, B. _d/templates/ student_resources/0155060678_rathus/ps/ps19.html
Primary Sources

Gillis, A., & Hagan, J.
National Criminal Justice Reference Service

Rasenburger, J.

U.S. Department of Justice
Bureau of Justice Statistics

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