“The Bystander Effect”
“In the 1960s, Columbia University researchers, John Darley and Bibb Latané, conducted a now famous study of a phenomenon that they coined “the Bystander Effect” in which they sought to prove that people made their most important decisions by observing social cues of their peers and would not dissent from these cues if the majority of their peers conformed to a uniform “norm”. To test their thesis, Darley and Latané falsely informed subjects, the “marks”, that they were being recruited to take part in a study about the many problems that currently afflicted life in urban areas. They then placed their marks in a waiting room to complete a questionnaire. As the marks completed their given questionnaire, Darley and Latané pumped smoke into the room through the room’s air vents and observed the marks’ reactions. At the four-minute point of the experiment, Darley and Latané ensured that they had pumped enough smoke into the room to interfere with both the breathing and vision of their marks.
Darley and Latané performed this above experiment under two markedly different conditions. In the first control version of the experiment, Darley and Latané placed the mark into the waiting room alone. Under the control version, nearly every single one of the marks investigated the source of the thick smoke and left the room to inform somebody about the problem. However, in the second scenario, Darley and Latané placed two other “shills” in the room with the marks and instructed the shills not to react to the smoke under any circumstance. Under these conditions, when the marks had the behavior of the shills to observe, the reaction of the marks to the smoke was remarkably different. Under this second scenario, even if the marks asked the shills about the smoke, the shills were instructed to shrug off any questions nonchalantly and to continue completing their questionnaires as if nothing were wrong. If the marks were particularly persistent in their inquiries about the smoke pouring into the room, the shills responded by calmly telling the test subjects not to worry about it and then resumed working on their questionnaires, again as if nothing were wrong. When the marks completed their questionnaires in the presence of shills that were instructed to ignore the smoke, Darley and Latané found that “only one of the ten subjects... reported the smoke. The other nine subjects stayed in the waiting room for the full six minutes while it continued to fill up with smoke, doggedly working on their questionnaires and waving the fumes away from their faces. They coughed, rubbed their eyes, and opened the window- but they did not report the smoke."
Though the above results may seem maddening to you, various iterations of Darley and Latané’s “Bystander Effect” experiment have yielded incredibly similar results, with approximately 90% of test subjects assuming the mentality and behavior of the “herd”, even when the herd acted in opposition to what the test subjects knew to be true. In the case of Darley and Latané’s experiment, even when the penalty for not breaking away from the herd and thinking for oneself might have been as severe as death from a fire, the social pressure imposed by the shills upon the marks to not appear paranoid or weird kept the marks behaving in a manner that placed themselves in a potentially very dangerous, and even life-threatening situation, for an inordinately long period of time.
In another iteration of the Bystander Effect experiment, one adult “mark” was placed in a room with six to eight other adult shills and asked simple math questions. At first, all the shills answered the various simple math questions truthfully, correctly responding that 2+2 = 4, 3+4 =7, 4+2 =6, and so on and reinforcing the “marks” knowledge of the correct answers as well. However, in this experiment, after a few minutes, all shills started to deliberately answer the simple kindergarten-level questions incorrectly, all providing the same incorrect response. For example, when asked to provide an answer for 2 +3, all shills would incorrectly answer “4”, not “5”. At first, when the shills started answering the questions incorrectly, the mark would still continue to provide correct answers. But after a minute or so of pressure to conform in giving wrong answers, the great majority of the marks would exhibit hesitation, confusion, and anxiety before eventually conforming to the incorrect answers given by the shills. Very few marks had the courage to hold their ground and give correct answers to every question when faced with the peer pressure of conforming to incorrect answers. Thus, psychologists have illustrated time and time again, that given social cues, the power to conform for most individuals is enormous.
Even the late great comedian George Carlin spoke about his mother’s susceptibility to the Bystander Effect as well. In an interview, Carlin recounted how his Catholic mother used to always scold him for his use of off-color language during his comedy shows. This scolding, Carlin recounted, persisted until one day, her mother ran into some excited nuns from Carlin’s school days that wanted to tell her about George’s performance on a famous late-night TV show. Carlin recounted how his mother immediately became defensive when the nuns started speaking, fearing that they would admonish her for her son’s occasional use of cuss words. ‘Oh but that language’, she moaned, expecting the nuns to agree with her. Quite to her enormous surprise, the nuns replied that George’s cursing was okay because he had used it in his show to make a point versus just for the sake of cursing. After that blessing from the nuns, George recounted, her mother never once again complained about his cursing. George stated that her mom must have concluded that if his cursing was not a sin in the eyes of God’s employees, then there was no more reason for her to have a problem with it.
A notorious tragedy, the terrorist attack of 9/11, also illustrated the power of the “Bystander Effect”. Newsday magazine reported in an October 13, 2001 article that after the first plane struck World Trade Center One, as people started to evacuate World Trade Center Two, the following announcement was delivered over the PA system: “Building One is in a state of emergency; Building Two is secure. You're fine. You can return to your work stations.” Some employees, though they had already started evacuation of World Trade Center Two, tragically decided to return to their offices upon hearing that announcement when others in their presence also decided to obey the announcement. Nancy Cassidy, an employee of Mizuho Capital Markets, confirmed this behavior. Ms. Cassidy stated, “It could be that because of that announcement, some people from my company went back upstairs and now may be gone." Dan Baumbach, 24, a software engineer from Merrick, relayed even more shocking news that building officials in World Trade Center One told workers not to evacuate even after the first jet had struck the building. "You can try it, but it's at your own risk," one official warned a group of 100 people on the 75th floor. Baumbach stated that many chose not to leave because of that warning and the inaction of others around them. The WTC One and Two employees that survived that tragic day were likely the ones that were with a herd of others that decided to ignore such foolish instructions. It’s a shame that the need to conform is so strong that it often leads people to make bad decisions that are in their own worst interests. The Bystander Effect has illustrated this time and time again in experimental and in real life settings.”