Bystanders who Intervene in an Attack

In 1964, the Kitty Genovese case taught the world that strangers wouldn’t come to a victim’s aid. New research suggests that, in fact, they usually do.


If you were assaulted in a public place, do you think anyone would intervene? Or would they just look down at their shoes and walk on by?

Most people expect very little help from strangers, especially in the big cities to which vast populations in the modern world have migrated over the past century. Having once lived overwhelmingly in far-flung rural hamlets, Americans have long seen cities as anonymous, dangerous places.

In 1964, the fatal stabbing of Kitty Genovese made this sense of threat more palpable. Genovese, a 28-year-old woman returning from a night shift, was brutally attacked in the entrance of her Queens, N.Y. apartment building. Thirty-eight of her neighbors purportedly heard her screams and did nothing to help. Her story launched a new psychological term: the Bystander Effect, which refers to the idea that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely people are to act as good Samaritans.

But there was a problem with both the term and the story. Many of the details of the Kitty Genovese story turned out to be false. She did die at the hands of a violent stranger, but subsequent sleuthing revealed that several bystanders did, in fact, try to intervene. And a study published last month in the journal American Psychologist confirms that bystanders aren’t as passive as we once thought. Not only will an observer often step forward in a real crisis, but the more people are present, the more likely the victim is to get assistance.

“It only takes one person to help the victim,” said Richard Philpot, the paper’s first author and a research fellow in psychology at Lancaster University and the University of Copenhagen. Working with three colleagues, Dr. Philpot broke away from previous approaches to documenting the Bystander Effect. Instead of simulating a violent emergency while groups of various sizes looked on, this new study analyzed closed circuit TV footage of real people interacting in public spaces.

In other words, Dr. Philpot’s team focused on genuine conflict—ranging from animated disagreement to physical violence—that spontaneously arose in public places in Amsterdam, Cape Town and Lancaster, U.K.

Four trained coders pored over footage from these cities’ surveillance cameras, culling 219 aggressive incidents from 1,225 video clips. The coders looked at the size of the crowd and zeroed in on any effort to calm the aggressor, to block contact between the two parties or pull the aggressor away, or to provide practical help to the victim.

What emerged was surprising, in more ways than one. Strangers intervened in nine out of 10 violent incidents. And the more people were around, the more likely it was that someone in trouble would get help. The consistency of the findings was remarkable: “South Africa was the only place were we saw weapons such as machetes, axes or knives,” said Dr. Philpot. “But victims were equally likely to be helped in conflicts there as they would be in the U.K. or the Netherlands.”

Some questions remain: How do people know when it’s safe to intervene, and would these findings hold in less populated places? But the new study is reassuring, at least for city-dwellers. There is indeed strength in numbers. It’s too late for Kitty Genovese, but there’s still time for the rest of us, who could be that one person in a crowd who steps forward to help.