Why People are Afraid to help others

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Why are people often afraid to help others? Many blame the recent surge in possible legal consequences. However, this common behavior, often referred to as bystander apathy, more often has its roots in the human psyche.

Kitty Genovese was a young woman returning after work to her home in Queens, New York, in the early hours of the morning in March 1964. As she left her car, she was attacked, stabbed 17 times, and sexually assaulted by a man later identified as Winston Moseley. Although this crime was only one of 9,360 murders in the United States in 1964, it initiated extensive psychological research into the phenomenon which came to be known as bystander apathy. Not only had the attack on Genovese taken over thirty minutes, 38 bystanders witnessed the murder and did nothing to save the woman's life (Gado, 2006). Psychologists have since developed several theories as to the causes of bystander apathy based on psychodynamic, behavioral, and cognitive perspectives.

According to Sigmund Freud's psychodynamic approach to personality, "much of our behavior is motivated by the unconscious" (Feldman, 2005, p. 467). Some psychologists suggest that it is these unconscious mechanisms that cause bystander apathy. Simon Sheppard stated that Neurotic Suspension, "being frozen in a state of neurotic confusionwhen a single stimulus evokes two or more distinct responses," may be a primary factor in bystander apathy. In the Genovese case, bystanders likely experienced conflicting responses, the desire to help and the fear of involvement. Psychologists also suggest that when more than one bystander is present diffusion of responsibility, the feeling that "responsibility to act is shared among those present" (Feldman, 2005, p. 633), can result. Thus, the greater number of bystanders present, the less likely it is that someone will help. This tends to hold true in most situations except when the victim is a friend or acquaintance. In this case, assistance is almost always given quickly regardless of the number of bystanders present because we unconsciously feel greater compassion and responsibility toward someone we know.

Behavioral psychologists suggest that a bystander will observe those around him or her to determine if the situation calls for action. If other bystanders are not assisting, we will assume that the situation is not an emergency and, therefore, refrain from acting as well. Evidence also indicates that fear is reduced in numbers even when the danger is not. Therefore, less fear would lead to a lower likelihood to act (Latane, Darley, 1969). Psychiatrist Ralph S. Banay suggested that television also played an important role in bystander apathy in the Genovese case. He explained that bystanders who have seen such incidents on television may have been "fascinated by the drama, by the action, and yet not entirely sure that what was taking place was actually happening" (Gabo, 2006).

Cognitive approaches point to the thought processes of the onlookers at the time of the event. If others are present, a bystander will be more likely to assume that someone else has already taken steps to provide help. Bystanders will also perform a reward-cost analysis of the situation. Also known as the Hamilton Rule, bystanders are more likely to offer assistance when the personal benefits along with the relationship of the individuals involved is greater than the possible cost resulting from the action (Sheppard, 2006).

Research indicates that many factors may play a role in bystander apathy; neurotic confusion, observation of others around us, and the reward-cost analysis of the situation. Regardless of the causes, it is often difficult to accept that humanity is capable of such seemingly callus behavior.


Feldman, Robert S. (2005). Understanding Psychology (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Gabo, Mark. A Cry in the Night: The Kitty Genovese Murder. Retrieved from Crime Library Website:

Latane, B, & Darley, J (1969). Bystander "Apathy". American Scientist, 57, Retrieved from

Sheppard, Simon Altruism and Neurotic Suspension: Beyond Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Effect. Retrieved from Web site:

More about this author: Carol Wohlfeil

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