The Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect

Friday’s Column: Learning From Lehman


David Chang

In the neighborhood of Queens, New York City, 1964, a young 28 year-old woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death right outside of the apartment building where she lived. The reason this criminal incident is so well known is not because of the murder itself—as shocking as it was. The murder of Kitty Genovese is infamous because of the failure of every single one of the thirty-eight or so bystanders to take action to either stop the murder or call for help. Thirty-eight. Thirty-eight people were reported to have either seen or heard the murder happen, and yet not one person stepped in to help—or even called the police. Thirty-eight bystanders watched or listened on as Kitty’s life was taken from her that day.

This incident later became the foundation for the Bystander Effect or the Genovese Syndrome. Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley, who popularized the Bystander Effect, attribute it to two factors: diffusion of responsibility and social influence. Diffusion of responsibility basically means that the more “bystanders” there are, the less personal responsibility an individual will take on. The reason teachers love small-groups is because it is harder for individual students to diffuse responsibility among a smaller group. It’s also the same reason students don’t like small-groups, because they can’t just hide in the crowd. They have to interact, answer questions, etc. Then there is the social influence, which basically means that you will do whatever the other bystanders are doing—or not doing. In the example of Kitty’s murder, those 38 bystanders saw no one else doing anything. Even though a murder was happening right in front of them, they failed to break the conformity of that immediate circle of thirty-eight people.

How many times have we done this in our faith life? How many times have we told ourselves that we can just hide in the crowd and not have to take action? How many times have we been so afraid of stepping out of line or going against the grain that we fail to live the way we are called to live? Let me ask you, how many times did Jesus step out of the social influence, the conformity of his religious peers, and the diffusion of responsibility among the crowd—to reach out and help those who are in need? He saw them as souls having value, rather than just another outcast of society. Jesus healed the sick and the blind. The blind man at Bethsaida (Mk. 8:22-26) and Bartimaeus outside of Jericho (Mk. 10:46-52). He treated women and children as if they were creations of God rather than some property or second class citizens. He healed them and welcomed them (Mk 5:21-43, Mt. 19:13-15, Lk. 7:11-17). He approached lepers, the ultimate example of social outcasts, and treated them with civility and mercy (Mk. 1:40-45, Mt. 8:1-4, Lk. 5:12-16; 17:11-19). He touched them and healed them, something not even the priests would have dared to do. Jesus subverts our expectations at every turn, and he breaks conformity at every opportunity. He is not paralyzed at the sight of someone in need; he springs into action, and continues to work even today. When we are helpless and in need, our cries do not fall on deaf ears—not as long as Jesus is alive. And he is alive and working today.

We are called to be like Christ, and part of that calling is to break free from conformity and social influence (Rom. 12:2). We are not called to hide in the crowd. Never should our personal responsibility of righteousness and good works be diffused among the crowd. We must not have a “someone else will take care of it” mentality…ever. 

I wonder if there were any Christians among the thirty-eight bystanders who watched and listened as Kitty Genovese was killed. May we never just be another bystander. May we never let evil and falsehood prevail in our presence. I pray that we all will work to break free from the paralysis of the bystander effect, and take action, every one of us, for Christ and his Kingdom.

You know, there is a positive aspect of the Bystander Effect. Just as people are negatively affected by the diffusion of responsibility and social influence, even those can be flipped to have a positive effect. All it takes is a few people to break that social influence, and spring into action. Then the other bystanders will be pulled to spring into action themselves. It is contagious. When those few break out, it breaks the spell of the bystander effect. 

Christ calls all of us to be those few who will break the paralysis. However, we cannot break the conformity while still being a part of the world. We must first break away from the world and become one with Christ through repentance and baptism. Even after that initial step, the job is not done. As a Christian, we cannot just return to standing in the crowd as a bystander. Do not be a bystander; an onlooker; just another body in the endless sea of spectators. Remember that Jesus never froze up at the sight of suffering or need. As Jesus first broke through to reach us while we were still in sin, let us also break free from the paralysis of the bystander, and spring once more into action. 

3 thoughts on “The Bystander Effect

  1. Neal, great article. I had heard about this years ago. Thanks for bringing it back to our attention. The best to you and Kathy and family.

  2. This is so sad!!! We sure need to wake up, show the love of Christ, and have more courage for what Christ has done for us!!! I am talking about myself!!! Thanks Neal for all the ways you and your family help us at Lehman!!! We are very grateful!!!

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