The “bystander effect” is one of the more curious aspects of human nature. In case you're not familiar, it's a social psychological phenomenon where individuals offer no help to someone in distress, even though other people are present. In some states, failure to come to the aid of someone in danger is a misdemeanor under the Good Samaritan law. But it's a troubling notion that you could be surrounded by people and no one would act.

Take the case of Kitty Genovese. She was raped and stabbed in New York City, and yet out of all the people who heard her cries, no one came to help.

Psychologists have determined three main reasons why people fail to act in these situations: diffusion of responsibility, following the crowd, and not wanting to stand out from that crowd. So, how and when do we start to see this bystander effect occur in children?

Jesse Singal from NYMag writes on a team of researchers, led by Maria Plötner from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, that wanted to figure out just that. They got 60 children to participate, all of them five-year-olds, and all of them just as susceptible to the bystander effect as adults.

The experiment had several scenarios with a similar setup. In each, there was always one adult experimenter in the room painting a cardboard wall and at least one child coloring. However, the study gets interesting when, in some scenarios, two kids are added to the room, but as secret confederates of the experimenter (told not to act). In the experiments meant to test the bystander effect, the two confederate kids were separated from the sight of the other child by the cardboard wall. In another, the two confederate children were not blocked off.

After the coloring started, the experimenter spilled colored water all over the table. The experimenter made a series of timed pleas for help for someone to bring her paper towels.

The results?

When the kids were alone with the adult, they were ready to help. However, the results were different when there was a crowd present. Indeed, young children are susceptible to the bystander effect. But the researchers write, “It is due not to social referencing or shyness to act in front of others but, rather, to a sense of a diffusion of responsibility.”

The researchers suggest that "interventions to promote helpfulness in bystander-type situations should address the issue of diffusion of responsibility early in development."

Philip Zimbardo, known for his 1971 Stanford prison experiment, founded the Heroic Imagination Project as a way to help everyday folks "transform negative situations and create positive change." In his interview with Big Think, he talks about two kinds of heroes: impulsive reactive and the reflective proactive:

Read more at NYMag.

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