The Apathetic Crowd

While crowds are most infamous for inciting people to rash action, sometimes crowds inhibit behavior. Research on helping behavior suggests that helping is much less likely to occur when there are many people watching. This well-established phenomenon, known as the bystander effect, was researched and described by American psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane. In a typical experiment, participants overhear an "accident," such as someone falling off a ladder. Researchers observe whether participants go to help. Most people help when they are alone, but people are significantly less likely to help when they are with a crowd of other people. Darley and Latane argued that bystanders in a crowd experience a diffusion of responsibility. That is, each individual feels less personally responsible to act because each assumes that someone else will do so.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that in many situations, it is unclear whether an event is an emergency. For example, an adult dragging a screaming child out of a store could be a kidnapper abducting a child or a parent responding to a tantrum. Bystanders observe the reactions of others in the crowd to help them determine the appropriate course of action in an ambiguous situation. However, because the situation is ambiguous, typically each individual is equally confused and unsure. By waiting for someone else to act, bystanders convey the impression to others that they think nothing is wrong. Psychologists call this phenomenon pluralistic ignorance. People assume that even though others are behaving in exactly the same way as themselves (not acting), they are doing so for a different reason (knowing the situation is not an emergency). Thus, a social norm of inaction can also become established in a crowd.

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