Diffusion of Responsibility and the Murder of Kitty Genovese

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Kristen McCurry explores the topic of the diffusion of responsibility, also known as the bystander effect, in which a group of people witness a crime and no one helps the victim.

Diffusion of responsibility, also called bystander apathy, is a social phenomenon which occurs in groups of people who all witness a crime and do nothing to help the victim. Diffusion of responsibility can manifest itself in two ways: a group of people see someone breaking the law or being injured and no one acts; or, in hierarchical organizations when underlings claim they were just following orders and supervisors claim they were just issuing orders from someone higher up than they are.

A troubling example of bystander apathy occurred on the morning on March 13, 1964. A young woman named Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death outside of her apartment building in Queens, New York. Thirty-eight of her neighbors watched the attack from their windows or heard her screams for help, but did nothing to help her during the thirty-five minutes that Genovese was being attacked—no one called police or went to her aid. The killer, scared by the lights in the neighbor’s windows, left Genovese twice—but, after realizing that no one was going to stop him, he came back and completed his crime. Two social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, decided to look into bystander inaction by focusing on the social forces that might influence a crowd to become passive witnesses. Their studies led to what they termed as bystander apathy, also known as the diffusion of responsibility, the phenomenon that people are less likely to offer help in emergency situations when they are in a group than when they are alone (Darley and Latane 1968)[3].

Darley and Latane hypothesized that the presence of others diffuses the responsibility of helping among the onlookers, along with a diffusion of the blame, since people do not think they will be blamed individually in a large group. Their hypothesis was that in an emergency, when an individual knows that others are around but cannot see their behavior, they will tend to assume that someone else must be helping and that their own intervention is thus unnecessary.

The diffusion of responsibility theory was tested by Darley and Latane in a laboratory experiment. Subjects were put into one room and heard another student having an epileptic seizure in another room. In some conditions, the students were told they were one of two subjects. In other conditions, they were told they were one of six subjects in the experiment. In the six-person condition, only 31% of the subjects responded to calls for help. In the two-person condition, 85% of the subjects responded.

Diffusion of responsibility was used unsuccessfully as a legal defense by many of the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg after WWII.

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Posted on Jun 15, 2014