The recent rape conviction of two teenagers, one of whom also distributed a photo and sent cruel text messages about their victim, has captured the “bystander effect” in graphic and nauseating detail.
The bystander effect is the psychological term coined after Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her New York apartment building in 1964. As the story unfolded, neighbors ignored her screams during three attacks over a 30-minute period.
This rendition of events was later disputed. Apparently, the configuration of apartments was such that no one could see the entire series of events. Despite different accounts, at least some of the people in her building were aware that a woman was being attacked and none came to her rescue.
The horror of the crime was magnified by this apparent lack of interest, leading to studies that produced the bystander effect theory. Researchers discovered that the more people who witness something, the less likely any are to respond.
When several witnesses are present, people tend to assume someone else will jump in — or make the call — or they think that, since no one else is taking action, there really isn’t a problem.
In the recent rape case, where two Ohio high school football players were convicted of assaulting a 16-year-old girl from West Virginia while she was too drunk to give consent (one of her attackers described her in a text message as “like a dead body”), not only were there witnesses but dozens of other teens were privy to what happened through postings to social media.
In no time, a 16-year-old’s humiliation went viral.