Almost every psychology student knows about Kitty Genovese, the 28-year-old Queens woman who was stabbed to death in 1964. At the time, the New York Times reported that no one had lifted a finger to rescue her. Though that story was later debunked—some people did call the police or shout down the assailant—Genovese’s death provoked a flurry of research on what’s now called the bystander effect. According to decades of experiments, the more people who are observing someone in trouble, the less likely each person is to help.
Today, however, new studies are calling the bystander effect into question—and sketching a somewhat sunnier picture of human nature. Most recently, researchers from the U.K.’s Lancaster University, the University of Copenhagen, and elsewhere captured a series of real-life conflicts on surveillance cameras and found that at least one person in the vicinity came forward to help about 90 percent of the time. The more people who were observing a conflict, the better the chances were that someone from the crowd would step in.
This high intervention rate, says psychologist and lead author Richard Philpot, suggests that humans have a strong desire to resolve conflicts and help those in need. While the new research—contrary to some earlier reports—does not disprove the bystander effect, it does reveal that people intervene in certain dicey situations more often than we assume. Another broad meta-analysis suggests that the more dangerous the situation, the more likely each observer is to intervene.