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Witnesses to Violent Acts Often Fail to Intervene

January 12, 1986|From United Press International

What makes a crowd of adults watch passively as a young girl is raped, while in another case, a 14-year-old boy, armed only with a stick, confronts a grown man to save another little girl?

"The research shows that bystanders tend to try to interpret what they are seeing so it does not make it look, or be, horrible," said Mike Stein, with NOVA, a victims' rights group based in Washington. "They use a filter to interpret what is going on. A person who is acting hysterically is a drunk, for example.

"The more people there are observing something, the less likely that someone will act," said Stein. "They get their cues from someone else. If you get just one person to do the rescuing, the rest will join in."

Studies show that witnesses tend to pass on the responsibility, telling themselves that someone else will make the call.

A 1968 study by Bibb Latane and John Darley proved that point. By 1981, 56 more experiments confirmed the results and expanded on them.

An article in the June issue of Psychology Today, which summarized the numerous studies, noted:

--In 48 studies, bystanders helped less when someone else was present.

--People who were alone helped 75% of the time.

--Those accompanied by another person helped just 53% of the time.

--More bystanders intervene if they see a struggle than if they just hear the incident.

--If people are going to intervene, most do so within the first few seconds after they notice the emergency.

--One study showed that bystanders will behave differently if they assume a quarreling man and woman are related. In a violent, staged fight where the woman yelled at her assailant, "I don't know you," help was offered 65% of the time. When a cue was given that they were married, help was offered only 19% of the time. The two fights were staged identically, but the married woman was seen as less severely injured.

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