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Help a Bronco out: exploring the bystander effect on campus

Sophomore Mallory Barker and Sophomore Hamilton Flake drop books to test how helpful Boise Sate's campus really is. (Cody Finney/ The Arbiter)

In an attempt to assess the bystander effect in the Boise State community, a (non-scientific, unofficial) field study consisting of four Boise State students dropping their belongings in crowded areas was conducted to observe those who stopped to help the subjects collect their items, and those who did not.

The test was designed by The Arbiter and discussed with Professor Kyle Conlon, senior lecturer of Social Psychology at Boise State.

While dropping books is no where near as extreme or horrific as other instances where the bystander effect has been observed, it is still an instance in which people have the opportunity to aid a fellow citizen.

The back-story on The Arbiter’s experiment:

When walking passed the Student Union Building, Mallory noticed a girl whose bike tire had popped.  A man was walking in front of her blatantly texting on his phone. The girl politely asked if she could borrow his phone and without even acknowledging her presence, he refused. Mallory stepped forward and let the girl borrow her phone. This experience inspired her to see just how often a Bronco is in need of help and doesn’t receive it.

The participants:

Kelsey Gregerson, an undecided freshman, age 19

Amanda Gilmore, sophomore history major, age 19

Alexa Valladolid, sophomore engineering major, age 19

Hamilton Flake, sophomore engineering major, age 20

The field study:

The first drop Valladolid made was staged on the Quad in front of about seven people, none of whom stopped to help.

Gilmore dropped her books in front of two girls. The first immediately stopped to help, and after some urging from her friend, the second girl stopped as well.

“I was so far back and wasn’t going to stop but then she told me to help, so I did,” said Shawna Uehara, the second girl to help Gilmore.

Subject Kelsey Gregerson, a 19-year-old female, dropped her books in front of the Interactive Learning Center in front of a group of at least 12 people, not one person stopped to help.

“I felt sort of ridiculous to be honest,” said Gregerson. “Even though I knew it was for a field study, I still felt clumsy and foolish that no one stopped to help.”

Flake dropped his books in front of one man, who looked at his books, sidestepped them, gave a slight smirk and continued on his way. The second drop was in front of two middle-aged men who work on campus who both stopped to help. His last drop was in front of one girl named Nicole Thomas. Flake said most of the people who saw him drop his books were helpful. He also said he thought Boise State is a helpful community.

“Overall, I think it is wonderfully helpful. I’ve noticed a lot of people helping other people when they need it,” said Flake.

Valladolid dropped her books three separate times, in the three different locations. Her last drop was done in front of one man, while on the stairs of the Interactive Learning Center. He immediately stopped to help her.

Out of a total of 11 drops, the subjects were helped six times. Under these circumstances, it would appear Boise State is helpful a little more than half of the time.

What is the bystander effect?

Psychology Today defines the bystander effect as “the presence of others hinder(ing) an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.”

Social Psychology Professor Mary Pritchard, Ph.D., elaborated this definition.

“The more people who are around you in an event, the less likely you are to receive help,” she said.

The history, background

The bystander effect is a phenomenon first observed in the case of Kitty Genovese’s murder in 1964. For nearly half an hour Genovese was murdered in a visible stairwell outside of her apartment in New York. A total of 38 of Genovese’s neighbors heard her screams or witnessed the murder itself, none of whom called the police or intervened. One witness did call the police after the murder, but called a friend from out of town to ask for advice first.

In 1968, social psychologists John Darley from New York University and Bibb Latane from Columbia University created a test in response to the tragedy of Genovese. They published their results in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in an article titled “Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility.”

They recruited male college students for an interview. The participants were either in a waiting room alone, with two confederates who were trained not to act, or two naive participants. Next the researchers began to fill with the room with smoke. Of those waiting alone, 70 percent responded almost as soon as they smelled smoke. Of those waiting with the trained confederates, only 10 percent reported the smoke at all, and of those waiting with two other naive participants 38 percent reported the smoke by the time the six-minute time limit was up.

The pathway to help

Pritchard explained  there is a decision tree developed by Darley and Latane. This tree shows there are five steps to helping in any type of “emergency” situation.

“Basically, it is pretty unlikely that you are ever going to get help becuase you can lose people along the way,” she said.

1. The bystander needs to notice an event is taking place. “In our technology-driven society, we’re on our cell phones, we’re texting, we are so oblivious to our environment that you are probably going to lose at least half of the people,” Pritchard said. “Just because they didn’t even see it happening, we’re just so self-consumed in our society today.”

2. The bystander needs to identify the event as some form of emergency. “If it is a situation where two people are arguing, a lot of people do not want to get involved,” Pritchard said. “They’re like ‘Ok, that is their issue, they’re going to resolve it on their own.’ ” Another factor in this step is pluralistic ignorance. “(Pluralistic ignorance is) the assumption that nothing is wrong, because no one else looks concerned,” Conlon said.

3. The bystander needs to take responsibility for helping, but might avoid taking responsibility by assuming that some body else will (diffusion of responsibility). Conlon explained that even if people recognize they are witnessing a crime, they may still fail to intervene if they do not take personal responsibility for helping the victim. The more bystanders there are, the less responsible each individual feels.

4. The bystander needs to decide on the appropriate helping response. “Even if you notice it and you interpret it as an emergency but you’re like ‘What exactly could I even do?’,” Pritchard said. She gave the example of someone being passed out, a bystander recognizing the emergency but without a knowledge of CPR, the bystander does nothing because he or she feels like there is nothing he or she could offer.

5. The bystander needs to implement that response, but this may be against their interest to do so, specially in dangerous situations. Pritchard said that some bystanders who do reach this step may experience audience inhibition, the fear of looking like a fool if he or she does help, or weighing the cost of helping against the reward. A bystander might be afraid that if he or she does help and perform CPR, the person could still die and the family could sue. “That is why states have the Good Samaritan laws like Idaho does,” Pritchard said.

Other instances of the bystander effect that might be familiar:

An article published by CNN stated as many as 20 people watched as a 15-year-old California girl was allegedly gang raped and beaten outside a high school homecoming dance for more than three hours. October 2009

The New York Post wrote of a homeless man who was stabbed after saving a woman from an attacker. He laid dying in a pool of blood for more than an hour as nearly 25 people strolled past him. April 2010

The New Yorker wrote about China’s bystander effect after a 2-year old girl was run over, twice and more than a dozen people walked by as she lay in the street. Oct 2011

The Washington Post wrote an opinion article on the bystander effect after Jayna Murray was murdered inside a Lululemon Athletica store in Maryland and two Apple Store employees next door, who heard cries for help and did nothing.

Why is it important to be aware of the bystander effect?

Skidmore discussed how the bystander effect might be prevalent in a campus community. “I see an age group of people willing to do anything for anyone as a group, but less likely to do anything as an individual,” Skidmore said.

Multiple studies have been done by professors nationwide, demonstrating multiple scenarios where the bystander effect could play out and some may hit close to college students.

  • Theft, would you stop someone from stealing from a stranger?: The study- “Intervention in the library: The effect of increased responsibility on bystanders’ willingness to prevent a theft” printed in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology

Two field experiments with a total of 160 university students where participants would ask someone to watch their belongings.

“Results indicated that bystanders who received a prior request for protective assistance felt more personally responsible for protecting the individual’s property and were more likely to prevent a theft of that property than were bystanders who received no request,” the study stated.

  • Manners/general helpfulness, would you help someone just to be polite?: The study- “Bystander effect in a demand-without-threat situation” printed in the Journal of Personality and Social Pyschology

In a study with 110 undergraduates, four non-emergency, nonthreatening situations were created to see if the bystander effect was generalizable to nonemergency situations.

“Results support the bystander effect, i.e., the probability of a person responding to a demand situation is higher when he is alone than when he is in the presence of 1 or more other persons who do not respond to the demand situation.”

  • Health/safety, would you help someone if they were having a medical emergency?: The study- “Bystander anonymity and reactions to emergencies” printed in Journal of Personality and Social Pyschology

Two experiments with 179 undergraduates investigated the impact of anonymity on bystander reactions to emergencies and on the timing of bystander decision making.

“Whether evaluation apprehension enhances or inhibits helping depends on the expectations attributed to other bystanders” the study said. “Once emergencies are clear, anonymity (through evaluation apprehension) influences the decision regarding one’s own obligation to intervene.

What students, profs say about the bystander effect:

Kevin Skidmore, adjunct communication professor, encouraged students to try to over come this phenomenon by confronting themselves and developing the attitude of “do to others what you would have them do to you.”

Skidmore says that he worries the upcoming generation is not taught this anymore. “I think we’ve lost that guiding principle,” said Skidmore.

“So many things could happen along the way from you not noticing it to you feeling incompetent to you feeling like you don’t want to be a fool … its really a miracle anybody gets help in this day and age,” Pritchard said. “But you’re much more likely to get help on Boise Sate’s campus than if you went to NYU, there is more of that helping mentality that those smaller towns just tend to have.”

Nicole Thomas was one of the people who stopped to help Flake during the field study.

“He dropped stuff and it is common courtesy to help,” said Thomas. “I figure you should treat others how you would want to be treated.”

Juan Koon, a chemistry major, stopped to help Valladolid and said he tries to help everyone. Earlier that day he helped a girl in a wheelchair get to class.

“Back in Thailand, my country, it is traditional to help when you see people struggling,”  Koon said.

“I think people will help if they are by themselves,” Valladolid said. “People have a different attitude in a group.”


It would appear that hope is not lost for Boise State, numerous citizens of the campus stopped to help when they saw a fellow Bronco in need.

However, in an emergency situation, according to the bystander effect, it can be assumed in a large group, it is less likely that any one member of that group will stop to help. Less appears to be more in the case of the bystander effect.

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About mallorybarker (0 Articles)
Mallory is currently a junior at Boise State studying English and Communications with a minor in Political Science. Mallory is the editor for the News section of The Arbiter. She is also the anchor for The Arbiter Minute.