The murder of Kitty Genovese and the bystander behaviour that was apparent that night triggered a great deal of research to explain bystander behaviour. Latane & Darley suspected that the fact that the number of possible helpers was so large might actually have contributed to their lack of intervention. They processes that might explain the reluctance of others to ‘get involved’ in situations such as the Kitty Genovese incident.
The Diffusion of Responsibility explanation suggests that the more witnesses there are to a person needing help, the less anyone witness feels responsible for giving help. Latane & Darley conducted a lab based experiment using male university students seated in individual cubicles connected by an intercom system, believing they had come to take part in a discussion on collage life. Students were lead to believe they were on their own, alone with one other participant who would later appear to have an epileptic seizure, or an increasing number of other participants.
Help was less likely and slower to be given when participants believed that other potential helpers were available. The findings from this study support the notion of diffusion of responsibility as, as suggested the more witness there were to the victim needing help, the less the participant felt a sloe responsibility to help. Participants assumed that his intervention would not be necessary, as confederates would have taken care of the situation.
However, it could be argued that as the experiment was lab based it holds no ecological validity, and therefore the results cannot be generalised to real life situations. Participants reluctance to help may have been caused by an attempt to avoid social disapproval (e. g. being the odd one out), or they may also have picked up demand characteristics from experimenters or other confederates as to the true nature of the experiment and felt they needed to supply the experimenters with the results they required.
Latane & Draley also proposed the Pluralistic Ignorance theory. This hypothesis suggests that when making a decision about whether or not to help, we look to see what other bystanders are doing. If other bystanders appear to act as if the situation is an emergency situation and help the victim, we are likely to do the same. If no one else offers to help we are unlikely to offer help as well. In the smoke filled room experiment participants were invited to take part in what they thought was a psychological experiment.
While waiting for it to ‘begin’ they were asked to fill out a questionnaire in a waiting room that is filled with smoke. In the first condition they were in the room on they’re own, and then in a variety of conditions including an increasing number of confederates, who acted like it was not an emergency situation. When on their own participant’s seeked help 100% of the time, but as the number of people present increased, participants remained seated and acted like it was not an emergency situation (mirroring the confederates behaviour).
This strongly supports the idea of pluralistic ignorance as they were looking to confederates for guidance on how to shape their own behaviour. Again this was a lab-based experiment and therefore it lacks ecological validity. As a result of Latane & Darley’s research, Piliavin conducted a field in a New York subway, where a stooge collapsed in a variety of conditions (black stooges that looked ill, white stooge that appeared to be drunk and visa versa), with other experimenters observing commuters behaviour.
If the victim appeared to be ill they were helped much more frequently than if they appeared to be drunk. The colour of the victim made no difference to the frequency of help they received. This real life study demonstrates that personal characteristics of the victim appear to play a more important part in whether to be a bystander or not. This study is much higher in ecological validity than those conducted by Latane & Darley as it was conducted in a real-life situation.
Most of the above research has been carried out in the USA. The dominant approach in the USA is based on self-interest, rather than concern for others. There is evidence that this selfish approach is not dominant in other cultures, e. g. a study by Whiting & Whiting found large differences in the prevalence of altruistic behaviour form one culture to another. Darley said in 1991; “in the United States, and perhaps in all advanced societies, it is generally accepted that the true and basic motive of human action is self-interest”.