Why Don't People Help in an Emergency?

The accident—a 78-year-old man hit by a car and flung into the air—was shocking enough. Worse, was what happened in the minutes that followed: nothing. Traffic continued to drive by and pedestrians apparently ignored the injured man lying in the street. The tape of the May 30 accident in Hartford, Conn., was widely viewed—and discussed. Why did no one help? What was wrong with those people?

It turned out that several bystanders did call 911 immediately after the accident. Still, the image that lingered was of cold-hearted indifference. Social psychologists have long been interested in questions of collective behavior. The hesitation of a crowd member to come to a victim's aid is part of a phenomenon known as "the bystander effect." Arie Kruglanski, a professor of social psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, has studied how people make judgments and how these attitudes affect their actions toward others. Kruglanski talked to NEWSWEEK's Imani Cheers. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why don't people always respond to someone in trouble?
Arie Kruglanski:
There is research suggesting that there is a diffusion of responsibility when a group of people witnesses an emergency. The individual assumes that since there are others, they will do something about it and the burden of responsibility isn't therefore on her or him.

Are there social factors that affect the way a group of people might react when they see an accident or other emergency situation?
The more people there are in the emergency situation, the less likely is the individual to take action. An individual alone, however, might feel responsible and act. A social norm that one should take action would likely be helpful. America is a very individualistic society where people take care of themselves and don't meddle in other people's business. This norm encourages inaction in emergencies.

Are health-care professionals or public servants more likely to aid in emergencies, or is it an individual thing?
This would depend on whether they have what social psychologist Peter Gollwitzer calls an "implementation intention"—a plan of action that individuals develop for emergencies. It could be formed in the course of these individuals' professional training. For instance, a police officer is trained to act when witnessing an act of violence against people or property.

Are there cultural or regional differences in the way people respond when someone needs help?
There most probably are. It all depends on societal norms as to whether other people's problems are something one should care about. In highly individualistic societies, such norms are less likely to exist than in collectivistic societies.

Several countries, specifically France, have "good Samaritan" laws which penalize individuals for failing to assist in an emergency. Is this policy productive?
Social psychology suggests that it should be effective, though I have no data on this point. It's a good norm and, in my opinion, should be adopted in the U.S.

If someone witnesses an emergency, what are some of the first things they should do?
That would depend on the type of emergency. In some cases, this should mean notifying the authorities. In other cases, the individual him or herself could help—as did Wesley Autrey when he saved a man in New York from being trampled by a train. In general, a person can approach the victim and see to what extent they can safely assist—especially if they have first-aid training. If they do not have first-aid training, they should immediately notify the authorities. People can yell or try to scare the assailants off when they witness an emergency such as someone being attacked.

If basic emergency medical training was taught in schools and the workplace, would that increase the number of people who assist in emergency situations?
Yes, I think so. In addition to forming the implementation intention to help, one should be told what to do, and this should be practiced until it is an automatic response to emergency situations.