Appendix 39d - Social Inhibition

by Michael Greger, MD and United Progressive Alumni

[ Medical School Resources | Appendices | Discussion ]

From the Daily News:

Her name was Catherine Genovese... set upon by a maniac as she returns home from work at 3:30 a.m.... Thirty-eight of her neighbors... come to their windows when she cries out in terror.... She screamed and she screamed and she screamed... 'Leave that girl alone,' one of them shouted down. They watched as the startled attacker fled. They watched as the bloodied woman staggered down the street, stumbled into the doorway and collapsed. And they watched as, 10 minutes later, her killer sauntered back and, without further interference and altogether at his leisure, finished her off.... None come to her assistance even though her stalker takes over a half an hour to murder her. No one even so much as called the police.

A year later... [an] American news team quite unsubtly re-created the... Genovese killing on [the same street]... and a young woman reportedly lay writhing and moaning on the sidewalk for half an hour, and once again not a single person called the law.[430]

[Another case:] An 18-year-old switchboard operator, alone in her office in the Bronx, is raped and beaten. Escaping momentarily, she runs naked and bleeding to the street screaming for help. A crowd of 40 passersby gathers and watches as, in broad daylight, the rapist tries to drag her back upstairs; no one interferes.

Ten Times Fewer

Experiments were performed to explore this phenomenon. Suppose you put someone in a room who then overhears a loud crash and a scream next door. The voice yells, "Oh, my God, my foot. I can't move it. Oh, my ankle. I can't get this thing off of me." Seventy percent of all subjects placed alone in this situation got up and offered to help to the victim. Quoting from the study:

Since 70% of Alone subjects intervened, we should expect that at least one person in 91% of all two-person groups would offer help if members of a pair had no influence on each other. In fact, members did influence each other. In only 40% of the groups did even one person offer help to the injured woman.[431]

Although it would seem obvious that the more people who witness a victim in distress, the more likely someone will help, what really happens is exactly the opposite, a phenomenon called social inhibition.[432] Even more powerful, what if you plant a confederate who just sits there passively? The presence of a non-responsive bystander markedly inhibited help; only 7% of the subjects in this situation intervened.


[430] "Maeder, J. "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Daily News 7 October 1998:59.

[431] Latane, B and JM Darley. "Bystander 'Apathy.'" American Scientist 57(1969):244-268.

[432] Latane, B and JM Darley. "When Will People Help." Psychology Today 2(1968):54-71.

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