Bystander Apathy: Why There isn’t Always Safety in Numbers

Our parents and grandparents have always told us that we should be careful in large cities like New York City, Chicago, or Las Vegas to name a few.  Large crowds have always been thought of as a safety net for those of us who worry about being abducted, raped, robbed, attacked, and etcetera.  We generally wouldn’t like to think that a whole bunch of people in a crowded street wouldn’t lift a finger if another fellow human being were to attack but there have been a lot of instances where people don’t react.  The reason why we don’t get the reaction from people that we think that we should is because most of us are scared.  What are we scared of exactly?  Being sewed, hurt, liable for injuries of another person, or that we might be blamed for a crime that happened.  This is called bystander apathy.

The definition for bystander apathy (or Bystander Effect) as found on the Wikipedia website is:  “a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer any means of help in an emergency situation to the victim when other people are present.”  The odds of not receiving help go up as the amount of people in a crowd increase.  Smaller amounts of people will guarantee a more likely chance of receiving help from somebody.  This of course does not make much sense to me, even after learning about it in my sociology class in college.

A couple of examples of the bystander effect will better explain this social psychological phenomenon.  These stories are not for the weak of heart of stomach.  I remember hearing about one of these in class and was very shocked.  I do have a strong stomach and nothing usually shocked me but this phenomenon really confuses me when i wrap my head around it.  

The first and most classic textbook example of bystander apathy is the case of Kitty Genovese.  This information is taken from the blog of Andrew Patrick.  In 1964, Ms. Kitty Genovese was murdered and it is disputed on how many onlookers saw her but it is said that from about 12 through 38 people heard the crime taking place.  Ms. Genovese was parked across the street from her apartment when Winston Moseley attacked her.  I do not remember the details on how many times that she was stabbed and no one witnessed the stabbings.  All that people heard were screams from the street and many people turned on the lights but never became involved.  There was one claim that a man yelled outside for the guy to leave her alone.  Kitty escaped for a little amount of time and made her way into the apartment building.  The only problem was that the hallway leading to her apartment was locked.  Meanwhile her attacker came back 10 minutes later and found her in the apartment building.  He stabbed her more times, sexually assaulted her, and then left her there.  She died bleeding from the fatal wounds in the hallway of her building.  Some people  say that the details of this story are a hoax but bystander apathy is a very real thing.

Another example of bystander apathy is the story of LaShanda Callaway  who was stabbed outside of a convenience store in Wichita, Kansas by Cherish McCullough.  The people walking in and out of the convenience store watched as LaShanda struggled for life.  No more than five shoppers went by and one even stopped to take a picture with their cell phone.  

These examples are quite shocking and extreme but to shed some light on what is responsible for bystander apathy.  When we think that we understand the average human being, there is something else thrown in our faces that makes things more confusing.  Remember, whenever you are out in public in a questionable part of town, bring some friends with you.  They are most likely the ones who will help if a criminal decides to strike.  We live in a country with millions of people and yet nobody seems to want to look out for another person if they are in dire need of help because we are afraid of being counted liable for something bad happening.

The focus of this article is not to make you cynical about humanity but rather to inform the reader that there is not always safety in numbers.  Unless a group of people are intimate, the probability of that person being protected goes down.

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