Bystander Apathy

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered while 38 neighbors watched and/or listened but did nothing to help. No one even called the police. Most of the public were shocked when they read the report in the news. They couldn’t understand how so many could witness a brutal murder and do nothing to prevent it.

Researchers have since identified this phenomenon as “bystander apathy,” and it’s much more common than you might think. Several studies have been conducted to learn more.

In one experiment, a person is led into a room and left there (sometimes alone and sometimes with a stranger). A moment later, the experimenter plays a two-minute tape simulating a fall and subsequent moaning about a hurt leg. When the person in the experiment was alone, 70% reacted to help. However, when there was a passive stranger (someone who pretended not to notice or who noticed but remained calm and uninvolved) in the room, only 7% responded to the “accident.”

In another experiment, individual subjects were led into a room and asked to fill out a questionnaire. Sometimes, they were alone in the room, and sometimes there were others present. Smoke was then pumped into the room through a vent. When alone, 75% of the subjects left the room to report the situation, but when there were passive strangers present, only 10% took any action.

When people are in groups of two or more, their level of responsibility is reduced in an emergency situation. In effect, the more people present, the less responsibility the individual feels.

But what has an even stronger influence on the decision-making process in an emergency are the reactions of the people around the individual. If others respond with apathy, the individual is much less likely to act. Why? Because he might look foolish. Because he’s not sure he’s interpreting the situation correctly. Because he’s unsure what to do and so chooses to model the responses of those around him rather than make a mistake.

Researchers have concluded that five things need to happen in a very short period of time for a bystander to help in an emergency situation:

  1. He must notice the incident.

  2. He must interpret the incident as an emergency.

  3. He must assume responsibility.

  4. He must determine what response to use.

  5. He must implement his decision to help.

Makes me wonder… Which decision are we, as Christians, struggling with today?

  1. Is it that we don’t notice the condition of the world we live in?

  2. Is it that we don’t think it’s an emergency?

  3. Is it that we see so many Christians doing nothing that we assume that theirs is the appropriate response?

  4. Is it that we don’t know what to do?

  5. Is it that we know what to do but still fail to act for selfish reasons?

The more I travel, the more I’m convicted that the Church in much of the world is asleep. There is incredible Godlessness all around us and altars on every high hill, but we don’t notice it. Millions are starving or suffering from AIDS or being sold into brothels or being enslaved as child-soldiers, but we don’t interpret it as an emergency. In trying to look like we’ve got it all together, we are giving other Christians the impression that no action needs to be taken; this is normal; quit worrying.

The Enemy is selling us the drugs of ignorance and comfort, and we are groggy from too much complacency. We need to WAKE UP! THIS is why we’re here! God is calling us to act. The world is begging us to notice that they are under attack.

So what should we do? Something! Anything! It doesn’t have to be much; God will use it. Start by sponsoring a hungry child in another country or by serving at a soup kitchen. Give to a ministry that is where you can’t be. Babysit for a single parent who is at her wit’s end. Write to a youth in prison. Share your struggles with others so that they will know that they aren’t alone. Go online and learn about the injustice being done to those without a voice.

Above all, PRAY! Find the people group that God puts on your heart, and pray for them. Your prayers are more powerful than your dollars, more powerful than your talents and more powerful than your time. Your prayers will engage the Enemy in spiritual warfare and frustrate his progress.

Getting involved is scary. It puts us at risk. It involves sacrifice and discomfort. But without someone taking initiative, the rest of the Church just stands by and watches. No one wants to look foolish by over-reacting. Everyone assumes it’s someone else’s responsibility, but each of us is responsible for part of the solution. We are witnesses to a crime, and it’s time to act.

(S – Latane, B., & Darley, J. Bystander “Apathy”, American Scientist, 1969, 57, 244-268.)



Filed under Religion, Spirituality

3 responses to “Bystander Apathy

  1. Carrie Howell

    Funny just last night B and I were discussing what an amazing adventure you and your family are embarking on. Already you are experiencing how good we have it here in our own little world. Makes me think about how the fact that I have a dirty house isnt the end of the world. Please continue to share with us all the amazing and heartbreaking things you are seeing on your journey sometimes we need to be reminded that there are people out there who are not able to help themselves so we will reach out to help them. Just because we dont see it everyday doesnt mean we should not react. Thanks for opening my eyes again!

  2. i don’t know if this would be included in bystander apathy – but often i don’t act because i don’t feel equipped. i’m certain that there is someone out there with more money, time, talents, wisdom, or whatever that can help better than i. forgetting, or rather ignoring, the fact that i am equipped – “i can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” ~ phil 4:13. and how convenient it is to be certain i’m not the best to do the work – sure gets me off the hook.

  3. Powerful post. Wow – I’ve got to tell you:

    Over the last 10 years, my path has been making increasingly more & more obvious turns towards service (a direct result from having continually requested that God take the steering wheel). But I have never, not until reading your post just now, thought about it in quite these terms.

    Prior to reading your words above, I started the day by writing a piece that is essentially about my own apathy. Then I took to surfing the blogs and I came across an inspiring quote by Frederick Douglass which led me to a story about the apathy over the recent Dunbar Village crimes. Within a short span of time, I came across a prompt to write letters for Amnsety International. And now I find myself here . . . at which point I hear with super clarity that the divine alarm clock is ringing (again).

    Message received. Good work. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s