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June 23, 2015
by Dr. Dawn Crosson,Psy.D

Spring Break Gang Rape Watched by Hundreds: The Bystander Effect

June 23, 2015 11:20 by Dr. Dawn Crosson,Psy.D

In March of 2015, while onlookers drank and partied, a young woman was brutally raped by three male college students. Later in April of 2015, while watching the news, the young victim recognized her tattoos in the video that portrayed the violent rape. It was then she realized, it was her that was being violated. Was it a flood of emotion or numbness that she felt as she watched her body being publicly abused? To worsen matters, there were hundreds of people within feet of the crime.  Why didn’t anyone help? Why didn’t someone stop the attack? Wasn’t there at least one person that felt responsible for ending the victim’s pain?

According to CNN, Panama Beach Authorities reported that this incident wasn’t the first time; it has happened to other young women in Panama City Beach. Through social media, there have been a number of videos of young women being desecrated over the last few years. 

Unfortunately, incidents such as this have occurred on several occasions over the years. In 2009, at a high school in Richmond, CA. more than 20 teenagers witnessed a gang of 10 boys rape a female student while a school dance was taking place.  In December of 2012, subway riders watched two males engage in a verbal altercation at Times Square subway station. One man pushed the other on the tracks and observers watched and took pictures with cellphones as the victim pleaded for help. He was eventually struck by an incoming subway train. This anomaly of, “watching but not helping”, dates back as far as the civil war era as there were numerous incidents that occurred after the war that included hundreds of people watching the public lynchings of African-Americans.

Has the world grown so callous and cold that helping others has now become antiquated? Has society become so self-centered that we don’t want to risk becoming involved? Several explanations have been offered for why people fail to help others that are being publicly victimized.

I don’t want to get involved

In 1964, Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese was murdered in New York City. She was stabbed to death. It was purported that 38 people witnessed the murder but did very little to help. However, later the story of 38 bystanders was discredited. (Jarrett, 2007). Regardless of the exact number of onlookers, Darley and Latane’ (1968) began to study the lack of reaction by the neighbors of Ms. Genovese. They launched a series of studies that added substantially to the research that is available today on the Bystander Effect. The Bystander Effect is a social psychology term that refers to situations where bystanders don’t offer help to someone who is obviously being victimized. The chance of someone assisting the victim is less likely to occur if the number of onlookers is great. Therefore, the more people watching, the less likely help will be offered or given.

It’s not my responsibility

One of the terms that Darley and Latane’ coined to help explain the Bystander Effect is diffusion of responsibility. Diffusion of responsibility suggests persons are less likely to take ownership for assisting or not assisting when others are present. This phenomenon generally occurs when responsibility is not assigned and when groups are large. As a result, individuals assume that action is someone else’s responsibility.

Bystander Intervention

Much of the research on bystander intervention surrounds sexual assault. However, educating bystanders on how to intervene appears to be a common intervention in the literature. Onlookers can be a powerful deterrent to assault.  Research support that young adults are willing to intervene to prevent assault. But they may lack insight on how to intercede. There are several factors that the literature suggests that would cause others to intervene in an emergency situation: people must identify that there is a problem, perceive the problem as requiring their immediate assistance, feel personally responsible to act, and feel competent to help.

 Intervention programs are being implemented on college campuses to aid in addressing the problem of bystander effect. However, teaching others to intervene can begin in the home. Parents can educate children by modeling helping behavior and teaching methods of helping (i.e. calling the police, finding others to assist, telling someone there is a problem). Research suggests that there may be paybacks for helping as well. Helping not only benefits others but is reported to add to personal happiness and self-esteem.  The act of helping can make us feel better about ourselves and on the inside. By taking the steps outlined above, we can make a difference in someone’s life and possibly stop an assault.

 “It is our special duty, that if anyone needs our help, we should give him such help to the utmost of our power.”--Cicero


Jarrett, Christian (October 23, 2007). "The truth behind the story of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect". Retrieved November 14, 2011

Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). "Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8: 377–383.

About the Author

Dr. Dawn Crosson Dr. Dawn Crosson, Psy.D

While there are a variety of places that offer psychological services, many of these services use a "one size fit all " approach to treatment. Dr. Dawn Crosson provides quality services that are tailored to meet the need of the individual.

Dr. Dawn Crosson has a clinical practice in Harrisburg, PA

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