Monday, September 14, 2009

The Absence of Personal Leadership and the Bystander Effect in Emergency Situations

In March 13, 1964, Catherine "Kitty" Genovese was returning home from work when she was stabbed to death near her home. In actuality, around a dozen people saw or heard part of the attack and a witness did contact the police either during or at the end of the attack. But the original New York Times article sensationalized the crime with the headlines, “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police”, which prompted an onslaught of criticism and negative stereotypes of how people in large cities have become calloused in large cities. The incident spurred a series of studies by Bibb Latane and John Darley, where they identified a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect”.

Interestingly, in Latane and Darley’s studies, observers are less likely to take action when an emergency occurs if there are other observers around. The greater the number of observers, the less likely one observer will intervene. There are two features of the bystander effect. First, the greater number of people present, the greater the diffusion of responsibility. For example, if a witness was the only person present when a passerby drops to the ground and has a heart attack – the witness would feel compelled to help the passerby. Now, imagine if there were twenty people around when the stranger has a heart attack. The diffusion of responsibility is greater because each person is more likely to think someone else will take action. The sole witness will feel more compelled to help a dying person versus twenty witnesses.

The second feature is a result of social conditioning. In general, people try to act in socially acceptable ways by not over-reacting, especially in an ambiguous situation. Let’s take the same scenario again with the random stranger who is suffering from a myocardial infarction, add some distance between him and the other witnesses, pretend he is mute, and make it really foggy. Suddenly, it is not so easy to predict whether or not witnesses will walk over to check on the person. The situation is not so obvious anymore because witnesses can’t hear him scream or see him too well through the fog and distance. Witnesses cannot tell if the stranger is really having a heart attack or if he is just some man who just tripped and fell. Logically, the only risk the witnesses really would face is to appear too prying in something that might be none of their business. But the small risk of embarrassment is enough for the witnesses not to take action.

Yes, yes. I know it sounds ridiculous to let the mute stranger die of a heart-attack in the fog, somewhere faraway because people might get embarrassed.

What theoretical point(s) or frame(s) does this example bring to mind?

This incident does not make any direct connection to a theoretical point or frame from our class readings. Instead, it makes a case against the idea that a leader may emerge in times of crisis and the absence of personal leadership is more likely to occur if a person’s sense of responsibility was somehow diminished. In Janis Irving’s article on Groupthink, team members isolated themselves from the results of their actions by putting themselves on a higher, impenetrable moral ground. They created this high ground by villainizing others, creating an “us versus them” mentality. In their minds, they did not need to reconsider their actions, they were always right. In Milgram’s experiments, the subjects carried out orders that conflicted with their moral views. One of the factors that allowed them to do this was a separation from the responsibility of the act. The subject transferred the responsibility of his or her decision to the authority figure. With the bystander effect, the responsibility was diffused among a larger group of people, which made it easier for people not to take action. The common theme in these studies is that people are less likely to intervene when there is a way to reduce their connection to their responsibilities, whether if it is by diffusion, transfer, or rationalizing. To create a petri dish for the absence of personal leadership, there must be a way for people not to feel accountable for what happened.

Why is this important?

Not every crisis will produce a leader. There are multiple reasons why a leader does not emerge from a crisis. In Latane and Darley’s studies, it was not the witnesses' apathy but rather a result of the bystander effect. In Milgram’s studies, it was the “dilemma of obedience”. In the Bay of Pigs and Pearl Harbor, it was the pressure of group dynamics. To me, this is important because it can happen in a non-emergency situation but it does not get the same level of visibility. Non-emergency situations don’t leave dead bodies as evidence of the absence of personal leadership. Instead, it may result in less acute but serious examples such as not intervening when you witness another shopper become victim to racial discrimination or obeying a total stranger.


  1. This is a clever idea for a post. I took a social pyschology class and the instructor did the exact same type of experiment, twice in fact and got a similar reaction: on the first day he walked into the class and welcomed everyone to molecular biology and began outlining the course. It took a while before someone raised their hand and asked if HE wasn't in the wrong place. Later he faked an injury and again, it took a little too long before someone checked on him.

    It's interesting because in these scenarios, when you talk about the crowd that does nothing, I wonder how many of them, in other situations would be "usually" defined as leaders? A part of this opens up, I think, the question of what % of people have the traits of leadership? It would just be interesting to see specifically how those people respond (why or why not)

  2. I liked your post! I have often considered the same idea regarding the absence of leadership to avoid accountability or responsibility. Your descriptions made me think of the quote from Selznick (1957) that said, "leadership is a kind of work to meet the needs of a social situation." Could a person in need of help during a personal emergency, where many people exist but none respond, actually fall into the realm of a "social situation" in terms of what Selznick was referring to? Maybe I'm stretching his words too far. However, this quote came to my mind because I have seen situations where a person only realizes his own potential as a leader when a situation calls him out from the crowd of stander-bys. His decision to act amongst everyone else's hesitance really speaks volumes.

  3. @ Alanna Kaltsas: It goes back to the class discussion that it's pretty contextual. In addition to that, I think it depends on how confident a person in a crown feels about handling a certain situation.

    If it was a physician who saw the man drop to the ground, the doctor would less likely question him/herself about what to do.

    I, on the other hand, know very, very little about medicine. So I would probably wait to see if anyone else knew what to do and step in when it looked like no one else would.

  4. @ Christopher: I liked social psych. too. The professors do nutty things to see what kind of reaction unsuspecting people give.

    In response to your question "what % of people have the traits of leadership", I think of it as a spectrum.

    rookie<----------rising star---------------->hero

    The rookie might just be trying to figure it out. He/She might not react in the crowd but step in if it's obvious that it is what he/she is supposed to do.

    The hero on the other hand is like your firefighter. He/She runs into burning buildings to save people. Maybe people all have different areas of their lives that they are heroes in, but we only read about the ones that affect tons of people.

  5. An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

    Karim - Mind Power


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