New York City And The Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect is an anthropologic phenomenon that occurs to a crowd of people. If an individual needs help in an emergency, there is a lower possibility of being helped by someone else if there are more people around. As the number of bystanders increase, they will all assume someone else will do something about it. The more people there are around, the less likely it is that anyone will act.

Last week, I’m walking uptown through Astor Place with this girl I’m seeing. We see two men struggling, as one man is holding another man back from running into traffic. Anyone could tell that the man trying to run into traffic was incredibly intoxicated, and he was easily fighting off the first man. We stop, staring at the bizarre scene, trying to figure out what exactly is going down. Emily, the girl I’m with, suggested that we go help the man out. Although I chalk it up to general insanity and figure we should keep walking, we end up going over anyway. Pretty girls have convinced me to do many things.

Researchers began examining this strange facet of human interaction because of a murder in New York City. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was killed in Kew Gardens, Queens by Winston Moseley. He entered her apartment, stabbed her, then dragged her out to the parking lot, where he eventually finished the job. Witnesses testified that she screamed, “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” at some point during the attack. Finally, after Kitty bled out on the sidewalk, someone called the police. When the New York Times ran an article about the brutal event, the headline read, “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” For more New York City examples, look to the sexual assaults at the June 2000 Central Park Parade, the Brooklyn Hospital Case, the murder of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax in Queens, and this 2010 report on a local news channel.

The drunk man’s name is Michael. He’s from California, alone, with no ID and no idea where he is or how he got there. Fifteen minutes earlier, the other man walked down Third Avenue, and saw Michael stumble into the Astor Place intersection, trying to hail a cab. He held Michael back from being run over, and had been fighting with him until Emily and I came along. I had to put Michael into a full nelson to keep him still, as we tried to hail a cab for another half an hour. No cabs would stop for us, and Michael’s drunken state was getting worse. Emily called 911, and we waited for an ambulance.

In the hour we and the sober man had spent with Michael, a total of four people stopped to ask if everything was all right. Theater patrons congregated outside of the Public Theater after a show, where they stole cabs away from us. Dozens of pedestrians passed by us while we were laying Michael’s head on the concrete, using some old t-shirts the other man had in his laptop bag as a pillow. It wasn’t as if we were secluded in a hidden part of the street; we were in a lit area in a busy intersection. And we were definitely making a scene.

There are over eight million people living in New York City. More than eight million awake, thinking beings of the species Homo sapien interacting and co-existing. All of us are packed so closely, everywhere is a crowd. It is easy to be swallowed up by the bigness of this city, to float along with the stream of people.

Whether a cross-country excursion or a daily commute from a different borough, we toss ourselves out of our family home to come to NYU. In the event that an emergency goes down–say we have way too much to drink, get lost, or hurt ourselves–it’d be nice to think that some stranger would come to our aid if we really needed it. No one says we have to be Ryan Gosling or the heroes who jump onto the subway tracks, but ignoring those in need only makes this city what our worried parents believe it to be.

The Bystander Effect is an idiosyncrasy of the human personality. It isn’t malicious, it is more a reflex than anything else. But a disturbing reflex, when you think about it. People like to believe that no matter what the stakes are, they would go out of their way to help someone. After the EMTs hauled Michael into the ambulance, Emily and I finally cross through Astor Place. We felt unusual. We’d done a good thing, and now had a great story to tell. In a city of multitudes, we were no longer bystanders.

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  1. Olivia Scofield says

    Very interesting story. Experienced the same thing myself when a homeless man outside of Madison Square Garden called out for help, saying that he had fallen and hurt himself. It was the middle of the day on a Sunday in September and he’d been lying there for a while, I presume, before a friend and I stopped and called 911. I stayed with him for nearly an hour and only about four people asked if they could help. Strange phenomenon.

  2. Rebecca Epstein says

    It’s a sad phenomenon, yes, but the Kitty Genovese story is always grossly exaggerated. Not nearly enough people heard her screams as the 36 people often mis-reported and those who did assumed it was an argument as it was 3 AM at the time, the windows to the apartment building were closed as it was winter, and most people were asleep.

    Important pro-tip for all: If you’re ever in a bad situation where you need help from passersby, it’s always highly recommended that you catch eye contact with people and TELL them they must help you and how. Unfortunately, most of the time people are too dim to have the motivation to do it on their own.

  3. Eun Jeong says

    interesting story. My freshman year I was woken up in the wee hours hearing a guy crying and screaming at someone on the phone and how depressed and upset he was about something in Hayden. My roommate was up writing a paper. We waited about 40 minutes for him to calm down – he didn’t. He started punching and kicking the wall and threatening to drop his classes and major. The guy was pretty much right outside our door. I remember feeling kind of helpless about what to do… so I wrote a little note telling him everything would be okay, that if he wanted to talk about his issues (which the whole hall could hear in full detail) he could shoot me an email or talk to Wellness and wrapped a candy bar with it; went outside to see him crying and punching the wall, handed it to him and went back in. His ranting calmed down after 30 minutes and he later sent an email saying thank you for the gesture…
    what bothers me is that I spent 40 minutes just listening to him pour out his pain and anger for everyone to hear, and no one on our floor – including me until then – even bothered to come out and speak to him or even to tell him to shut up – it was like 3-4am.
    I don’t write this to condemn; honestly I feel confused and wonder what it really takes for me, you, for anyone to step outside of their comfort zone.