In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bystander Intervention

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Historical Background – The Kitty Genovese Case
  • From Emergency to Intervention – The Process Model of Help-Giving

Criminology Bystander Intervention
David F. Urschler, Peter Fischer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0258


In March 1964, a man chased a woman in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York City. After he caught her, he stabbed her, raped her, left, returned, stabbed her again, and, finally, left her to die in front of her apartment. This murder case was one out of 9,360 killings in the United States in 1964, which did not attract much media attention in the beginning. However, after a meeting between a police commissioner and the New York Times editor, this murder attracted massive media attention. In that meeting, the police commissioner claimed that he had the names of allegedly thirty-eight neighbors who watched the attack from the safety of their apartments without assisting the victim, Catherine “Kitty” Genovese (see Historical Background – The Kitty Genovese Case), for over half an hour. The media coverage was echoed by a huge public debate. In this debate, many experts testified the breakdown of moral and social values. Particularly, they claimed that, in general, witnesses of an emergency (bystanders) are apathetic, indifferent, and unconcerned. However, the social scientists Bibb Latané and John M. Darley were not convinced by claims that Kitty’s murder reflected processes of a social breakdown. Instead, they argued that maybe more generic psychological factors might be at work during the intervention process that hinders intervention. Latané and Darley argued furthermore that when each member of a group of bystanders is aware that other people are also present, each would be less likely to notice the emergency, less likely to decide that it is an emergency, and less likely to act. Consequently, they concluded that the presence of other people inhibits the impulse to help. To test this conclusion, Latané and Darley designed some of the most influential experiments in the history of social psychology. In those experiments, participants were faced with a variety of staged emergencies, either alone or in the presence of other people. These classic experiments provided encompassing evidence for the bystander effect, that is, that the presence of others decreases the likelihood of intervention in emergencies. Although the bystander effect has been one of the most robust and reliable findings in social psychology, more recent research also shows that the presence of others reduces or even reverses the bystander effect. In sum, research on bystander behavior has provided evidence that the presence of others can both inhibit and foster emergency intervention.

General Overviews

Griggs and Proctor 2002 reveals that the bystander effect is one of the most covered topics in introductory psychology textbooks. Therefore, almost any general introductory psychology textbook provides a general overview of the bystander effect. Gerrig and Zimbardo 2010, a chapter on social psychology, provides a brief overview of the basic findings about the bystander effect. Fletcher and Clark 2002 is a chapter on prosocial behavior and provides a good introduction to the bystander effect. The undergraduate textbook Aronson, et al. 2012 provides a more detailed overview of classical and up-to-date findings about the bystander effect. For the German-speaking reader, a concise presentation of the bystander effect can be found in the introductory social psychology textbooks Fischer, et al. 2013 and Kessler and Fritsche 2017.

  • Aronson, Elliot, Timothy D. Wilson, and Robin M. Akert. 2012. Social Psychology. 8th ed. New York: Prentice Hall.

    This well-organized and easy to read undergraduate textbook offers an introduction to the central topics of social psychology. All presented concepts (for example the bystander effect) are explained based on classic and recent findings.

  • Fischer, Peter, Kathrin Asal, and Joachim I. Krueger. 2013. Sozialpsychologie. Berlin Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

    (Social psychology). An entry level textbook written for German-speaking undergraduate students and anyone who is interested in social psychology. The textbook covers classical findings such as the bystander effect as well as current topics.

  • Fletcher, Garth J. O., and Margaret S. Clark, eds. 2002. Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Interpersonal processes. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    This edited volume provides an encompassing overview of interpersonal processes. The chapter on prosocial behavior by Dovidio and Penner provides an overview of answers to central questions in the area of prosocial behavior research, namely, When do people help? Why do people help? Who does help?

  • Gerrig, Richard J., and Philip G. Zimbardo. 2010. Psychology and life. 19th ed. Boston: Pearson.

    This fundamental textbook provides a wide overview of the most important general effects in all psychological disciplines. The chapter on social psychology includes a good discussion of the bystander effect. All presented effects are connected with everyday life situations. This book is highly recommended for those with little to no exposure to psychology.

  • Griggs, Richard A., and Derrick L. Proctor. 2002. A citation analysis of who’s who in introductory textbooks. Teaching of Psychology 29:203–206.

    DOI: 10.1207/S15328023TOP2903_04

    Griggs and Proctor’s article provides a comprehensive overview of the most cited authors in introductory psychology textbooks. Given that Latané is among these authors this fact underpins the far-reaching implications of the bystander effect.

  • Kessler, Thomas, and Immo Fritsche. 2017. Sozialpsychologie. Berlin Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

    (Social psychology). In a concise form, this easy to understand German textbook covers the central topics in social psychology, including the bystander effect.

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