Why do witnesses fail to help?

Over Fourth of July weekend, bystanders watched and laughed while a tourist in Cincinnati was viciously beaten. Last week, a suicidal woman in China jumped from a tenth floor window while crowds below encouraged her decision. And back in March, four teen girls attacked another young female at a Brooklyn McDonald’s as dozens of people stood around and watched. While the brutality and viciousness of these stories are shocking, what’s even more shocking is the fact that each of them involve people either standing around watching, laughing, or cheering on these people in serious distress and need of help. These are only a few of the stories which seem to be a trend involving people who fail to come to the aid of people in need of help.


How could this be? How could people just stand around and watch another person be attacked by another person or group of people? Many would probably admit that they were simply fearful of getting involved, yet intrigued enough to keep watching. But why not call someone? And to go even further as to laugh, or cheer? To the average individual, this is a concept that is difficult to wrap your head around.

Here are some potential explanations as per social psychology as to why witnesses fail to help others in distress:

Bystander effect. One theory among social psychological research is called the bystander effect. This means that when there are a number of people around watching, people are less likely to offer help as opposed to when they are alone. 

Diffusion of responsibility. This goes hand-in-hand with the bystander effect. The more people there are, the less inclined people are to feel responsible for what they are witnessing. Yet, when you are the only witness, all of that responsibility lies in your hands. When a crowd is watching, someone usually assumes that another person must be telling someone or doing something to help the situation.

Regardless of these so-called explanations and regardless of the situation, each and every individual should feel socially responsible to do what is morally correct. If you don’t feel some sort of guilt or shame for not helping people in these types of situations, you may need help yourself. I’m not saying you should physically get yourself involved in violent situations as that is not always safe.  But at least tell someone. And if there are others around, encourage others to tell someone too. Imagine being the victim who is most certainly praying that someone is going to intervene or at least call for help. By making yourself and others aware of why certain bystanders fail to help, we can reduce the amount of immoral, violent events such as these that occur.