Discuss Research Relating to Bystander Behaviour

Bystander behaviour refers to the behaviour of somebody who does not feel it is their problem if someone is in need of help, therefore, they stand and observe thinking that someone else will help instead, and this occurs more often when there are a lot of people around. One classic example of bystander behaviour is the incident involving Kitty Genovese. The witnesses all could have assumed that someone else must have phoned the police. There has been a lot of research into bystander behaviour; some involving laboratory experiments, and some involving field experiments. The two main areas of research are that carried out by Latane and Darley and that carried out by Piliavin. Latane and Darley created situations in a laboratory, whereas Piliavin took more consideration into the personal factors of the victim.

Latane and Darley suggested that when there is only one witness to a person that needs help, that witness is 100% responsible for giving help. When there are two witnesses there is 50% responsibility put onto each of them, and so on. The more witnesses to a victim’s need for help, the less anyone feels responsible. To support this, Latane and Darley conducted the ‘seizure experiment’, in which the participants were male undergraduates who were to take part in a discussion about university life. Due to the confidentiality of the discussion they were sitting in cubicles alone, and connected to other participants via an intercom.

In the first condition, there was one participant, and one confederate having an ‘epileptic seizure’. In the second condition there was one participant, one confederate having the ‘seizure’ and one other confederate, and finally, in the last condition there was one participant, one confederate having the ‘seizure’, and five other confederates. As the discussion develops, the confederate having the ‘seizure’ sounds as if he is having a fit. Latane and Darley found that when the participant in the first condition is under the impression that he is the only witness, 85% get help during the fit, 100% go for help, and on average take fifty seconds to make the decision. In the second condition, 62% go for help during the fit, 85% go for help, and the response time was ninety-three seconds on average. In the third condition, 31% respond, 62% do go for help, with an average response time of one hundred and sixty-six seconds.

They concluded that people are much less likely to help when they know other people are around to help. The responsibility is shared, and it is entirely up to the individual to recognise a situation and respond to get help. This is known as diffusion of responsibility. Latane and Darley also tell us about pluralistic ignorance. Making a decision whether to help or not, we will look around to see what other people are doing about it. If other people have decided the person definitely needs assistance and starts to help them, we may decide to help too. If other people do not seem bothered, we might assume the victim does not really need help due to the behaviour of others. In the ‘smoke filled room experiment’, participants were sitting in a waiting room, either alone, or with some confederates.

They think they are waiting to take part in a psychology experiment, and in the mean time are asked to fill out a questionnaire. While this is occurring, the room fills with smoke. When there was just one participant, they left the room and raised the alarm. When there were confederates present, who carried on filling in the questionnaire, and ignored the smoke, the participants behaved likewise. Latane and Darley explained this by suggesting that bystanders look at the behaviour of other people in order to obtain guidance in what to do. If other people are behaving as if the situation is not an emergency, the individual bystander will do the same. In the case of Kitty Genovese, no one was seen to go to her rescue; this may have defined the situation of not requiring any action. The main criticism of the above studies and explanations is the lack of ecological validity.

Piliavin carried out the ‘New York Sub-Way Experiment’ in order to look at factors involved in bystander/helping behaviour. A pretend victim fell over on the sub-way train. The victim appeared to be either drunk or ill, and was either Afro-American or white American. He found that the effect of diffusion of responsibility did not occur, that is, some people did not help and others did. People were more likely to help if the victim appeared ill rather than drunk.

There was no significant difference of levels of help if the victim was Afro or white American. The main ideas resulting from this study are that in real life situations, whether we help or not may be more due to the type of person the victim is rather than the type of person the bystander is, rather than the situation factors suggested by Latane and Darley. In evaluation, Piliavin’s experiment can be criticised because, although it was more ecologically valid, the participants could not be debriefed after the experiment, and there was no way of letting them know that they were part of it, making the experiment morally incorrect, and causing Piliavin to miss out on feedback. The results also contradict those found by Latane and Darley.

Most research into pro-social behaviour has been carried out in the United States. The dominant approach to life in the USA is based on self-interest rather than any altruistic concern for others. Therefore, the explanations and behaviours described in the above studies may be very culturally biased. People from more collectivist societies are possibly less selfish and less likely to be bystanders. For example, Whiting and Whiting’s study which examines altruistic behaviour in young children between the ages of three and ten demonstrates large differences between cultures. Darley tells us, “In the USA and perhaps in all advanced capitalistic societies, it is generally accepted that the true and basic motive for human action is self interest.”

Individualistic cultures stress the need for individual achievement and individual recognition, whereas collectivist cultures stress interlocking, family-like connections in which individuals depend upon each other. This incorporates the idea of Norm Theory, that is, different cultures will have different social norms, therefore, different attitudes to helping others, for example, the Chinese custom, Guan Shee Shwe, which involves the exchange of gifts, personal favours, the cultivation of personal relationships and networks of mutual dependence. It leads to the manufacturing of obligations and indebtedness. This might bare some resemblance to the Reciprocity Norm.

A study has been done comparing Indian and American adults. They found that American participants were less likely to help someone they did not like compared to someone they did like. Within the Indian participants there was no difference, whether they liked them or not. These types of studies show us that however useful the research carried out by Piliavin and Latane and Darley is in America, it can not be generalised at all with other cultures.

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