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Woman rescued from a burning car while others watch: How do you lessen the 'bystander effect'?

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In stories of about disasters, we often read of heroes who step forward to help.These lone rangers are often exactly that – alone. But in Beaverton, Oregon on Saturday, 19-year old Phillipe Bittar was not alone when he decided to break away from a cluster of bystanders to save a woman trapped in a burning car.

Mr. Bittar told KPTV, “There was like six bystanders just videotaping like oh man she needs to get some help." 

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What held the other bystanders back? The 1964 murder of New York bar manager Kitty Genovese had many asking similar questions. A New York Times story mistakenly reported that 38 onlookers had done nothing as Ms. Genovese was repeatedly assaulted, sparking national outcry.

As the Monitor’s Fabien Tepper reported, “Many of the details reported by the Times have since been debunked…But in the decades that passed before the story’s revision, the murder spurred painful questions about human nature. Surely 38 random strangers couldn’t all be sociopaths; so what went wrong?”

In a landmark 1968 paper titled "Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility", social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané found that those who perceive more witnesses to an emergency are less likely to act than those who believe there are few or no other witnesses. 

Other studies have shown that the “bystander effect” also applies to young children. A paper published in March addresses the common belief that children are more likely to help when in the presence of others:

“In the current study … 5-year-old children help an experimenter at very high levels when they were alone but helped significantly less often in the presence of bystanders who were potentially available to help.”

The good news is that simply knowing about the bystander effect can help prevent it. In 1978, one psychologist had students listen to either a lecture about Latané and Darley's research or a lecture on an unrelated topic. Two weeks later, each group of students were presented with an 'unconscious' student lying on the floor while a confederate stood by, apparently unconcerned. The students who had heard the bystander effect study were more likely to help.

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The Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science offers two strategies to overcome diffusion of responsibility: The first is for the victim to direct his dialogue to a specific member of a crowed of people. The second is for the victim to choose a person who is as similar to them as possible, in terms of gender, class, and attire to help them.

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But maybe we can all be like Bittar, who told WVUE, “I just did what any person’s supposed to do.”