Would I help a stranger in distress?

Following the crowd

Whether it’s someone collapsing in front of us or a fight breaking out in the street, many of us have witnessed a stranger in distress. But plenty of people walk on by.

It’s not a modern phenomenon. In New York in 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered. It was reported that at least 30 neighbours witnessed the attack, but none of them intervened. Stepping into some situations would clearly be dangerous and ill-advised, but there are often other kinds of help that passers-by could provide.

Social psychologists have long tried to understand why people react the way they do. Several factors influence how we respond, contributing to the phenomenon known as the “bystander effect”.

The bystander effect

Brooke Kinsella, whose brother Ben was fatally stabbed in 2008, has been trying to understand how those kinds of tragedies can be prevented. We staged a demonstration in the street to show her the bystander effect.

Seeing a middle-aged man on the pavement, clutching his stomach and groaning, should signal to passers-by this is a ‘help’ situation. But research suggests that the larger the crowd, the more likely it is that people will ignore the situation. However, once one person stops, other people follow suit.

Brooke meets Dr Lasana T Harris, experimental psychologist from UCL, who has set up a demonstration to show how people in a crowd can be influenced by the so-called bystander effect.

INTERACTIVE: Why we behave like this?

Psychologists have discovered several key factors that can affect the decisions made by passers-by.

Factors like the weather, the location, the types of people passing and how the person in trouble is dressed can affect the situation. These variables continue to be researched and analysed by psychologists. For example, a 2008 study found that, if bystanders were friends, increasing their numbers resulted in a greater likelihood of them intervening in a scene of street violence.

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