The apathetic spectator experiment

The apathetic spectator experiment

Imagine that someone walks on a public road and suddenly a robber sneaks up, steals his wallet and leaves him lying on the ground. What do you think would be the reaction of passersby? Surely help the person berthed if he has suffered an accident, call the police or shout to warn about the thief. Some intrepid would even run after the robber trying to retain him. Or so we would like to think. However, something unexpected may also happen: absolutely nothing. Unfortunately, citizen passivity in the face of events that require human solidarity is a fact, especially in the most crowded and industrialized cities. Nowadays it is common to observe how dozens of people walk impassively around someone who needs help, without reacting or responding to these events and science has inquired about it through different studies. Today we talk about one of them: the apathetic spectator experiment.


  • 1 The tragic event that triggered the experiment
  • 2 An investigation in this regard
  • 3 The viewer's effect

The tragic event that triggered the experiment

In 1964, a terrible event happened in New York that still fills people who hear about it with frustration and strangeness. It's about the murder of the young Kitty Genovese.

Kitty Genovese arrived at her apartment in the Queens neighborhood when suddenly a man named Winston Moseley stabbed her twice in the back. Kitty shouted for help and a neighbor's voice responded from a window shouting at the killer "to leave her alone." After listening to the neighbor, Moseley left the scene, leaving the dying girl at the foot of her house, then returning 10 minutes later stabbing her again, sexually abusing her and stealing her money.

This terrible and tragic event triggered a great controversy following the New York Times article in which they narrated the facts. According to the text, the atrocious event had not only been perpetuated by the hand of the murderer, but also by the passivity of the 38 neighbors surrounding the area and having witnessed the events, did not take any part in this regard or tried to avoid it. The article claimed that the young woman agonized for half an hour without the help of her neighbors, until one of them called an ambulance that went to the scene.

Thus, the complicated debate was opened on why the lack of solidarity, the dehumanization of societies and the extreme individualism that flourishes within the great western cities.

Years later, Kitty's brother, William Genovese, began to study the case to find out to what extent the article was right and if the tragic event had occurred as it was narrated. According to their investigations, many of the neighbors did not know exactly what was happening, some heard noises that they could not identify, as well as a neighbor if she came down to help the young woman. All these results are collected in the documentary The Witness.

But it is still true that some neighbors would have avoided acting and although the story was not entirely true, the controversy was served and it became clear that, whether they were 2 or 38 neighbors, some people behaved passively and that this lack of reaction to alarming events It happens again and again in different contexts, situations and dates.

An investigation in this regard

Some previous studies and essays like Georg Simmel's had already been done on the lack of sensitivity that prevails in individualistic behavior in cities. Shortly after these events, researchers John Darley and Bibb Latané tried to find an answer to why these types of events, carrying out an experiment entitled “The passive spectator experiment”.

The researchers recruited several university students who were told that they should participate in a group discussion with other participants who were in another room, through microphones. Each participant would discuss in turns with 1 to 5 people, depending on the condition of the experiment. However, they did not know that they were really speaking with recorded voices.

When the participants were in full discussion, they listened as one of the subjects with whom they spoke through a microphone confessed to suffering from epilepsy, this subject minutes later, began to have seizures. The results impacted the researchers: only 31% of the participants tried to notify them for help.

This was accentuated when the subjects were in a group with 5 other people, however when only they participated, their response was of greater implication.

The viewer's effect

This response of passivity to the help of others was called: viewer's effect According to this, against more people are in one place, less likely You have to help someone who needs it.

This seems to happen due to a perception of dissemination of responsibility. That is, when there are many more people around, the individual reaction is more passive due to a feeling of lack of personal responsibility, something like thinking that other people could also help instead of oneself.

The other explanation responds to reasons of protocol and social behavior. When perceiving an inactivation in the behavior of other people, it seems the individual would tend to think that perhaps the situation is not so risky and that a reaction to it would not be appropriate. This does not happen, however, when there are few spectators or only one, since the perception of responsibility seems to be much greater, with which participation is more likely.

Although the study sample was small enough to draw global conclusions, other studies carried out later corroborated this surprising response.

There are other variables to take into account when explaining these behaviors, such as cultural factors and the perception of the seriousness of situations, as well as a self-protection factor when it is deduced that when intervening in a conflictive event, you can get damaged . But unfortunately the effect of the apathetic spectator has been brought back to life in many psychological experiments and real-life events.

It is necessary that through information and social awareness, individuals of this type of problems become partakers that make us more and more unsupportive and selfish societies.

Links of interest

Bystander Apathy Experiment. //

The Bystander Apathy Experiment. //