Generaleneral Psychologysychology


Kitty Genovese and the Factors that Influence Prosocial Behavior

In March, 1964 Kitty Genovese was returning home from her job in New York City. She was in her neighborhood when she was attacked by a stranger. She was stabbed and beaten repeatedly. It took 30 minutes before she died. At least 38 of her neighbors watched the events of her death unfold from the safety of their apartments without calling the police or giving any other help. A number of newspaper articles and several books were inspired by Kitty's death. Most contended that no assistance was offered because we are becoming a "cold" society and no longer care for one another.

Why didn't anyone help? It would seem that with so many people present at least someone would assist. Latane and Darley hypothesized that for at least two reasons a bystander would be unlikely to offer help. The first is called diffusion of responsibility. Latane and Darley contend that the obligation of each individual to provide assistance is reduced when several potential helpers are available. The second explanation is similar to the principle of social proof and is called pluralistic ignorance. According to this view, we are often not sure if a situation is an emergency. When in doubt we look around to see if anyone else is responding. We conclude that there is not a real emergency if no one else is reacting to the situation.

Are diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance really factors that affect helping in an emergency situation? Or are they explanations that appear "reasonable" explanations but do not actually influence the likelihood of helping? Experimental psychologists are seldom satisfied with just a "reasonable" explanation. Instead they require empirical verification of the hypothesis.

Factors that affect prosocial behavior

1. Diffusion of responsibility: Darley and Latane (1968) asked college students to participate in a group discussion about the problems faced by college students. To avoid embarrassment, the discussion was held over an intercom. Each person was assigned a separate booth and spoke when their turn came. On the first round, one "subject" mentioned that he had seizures. On the second round, sounds came over the intercom indicating that he was having a seizure. Eighty-five percent of those persons who thought that they were alone with the seizure victim offered help. Sixty-two percent of those who were in a three-person group reported the seizure. Only thirty-one percent of those people in groups of six went to help the victim.

2. Pluralistic ignorance: Latane and Darley (1968) invited male college students for an interview. As they sat in a small waiting room a stream of smoke began to pour through a wall vent. Some subjects were alone and others in groups of three. Seventy-five percent of those subjects tested alone reported the smoke in less than two minutes. In contrast, less than thirteen percent of those tested in groups reported the smoke in six minutes. I should mention that the room was completely smoke filled in six minutes.

3. A helping model: Bryan and Test (1967) counted the number of drivers who stopped to help a woman fix a flat tire. Some drivers had just passed a car with a flat one-quarter mile before the test car. A man was beside this car helping a woman change tires (helping model condition). Other drivers were not exposed to a helping model (control condition). Fifty-eight percent of the drivers stopped to offer assistance in the helping model condition. Only thirty-five percent stopped to help in the control arrangement.

4. Good moods: Isen (1970) gave a battery of tests to students and teachers. Some people were told that they performed very well, others that they had performed poorly, and a third group was not given feedback. Later the subjects were given the opportunity to help (e.g, donate to school fund, help a woman struggling with an armload of books). People who were successful on the test were most likely to offer assistance. Subjects that thought they had failed were no less likely to help than subjects in the no feedback condition. Isen said that "a warm glow of success" makes people more likely to engage in prosocial actions.

5. The cause of the misfortune: Piliavin, Rodin, and Piliavin (1969) conducted an experiment in which an individual collapsed in the subway. The man who collapsed was either carrying a cane and appeared ill or held a bottle and smelled of liquor. Bystanders were more likely to help the sick man than the drunk. One interpretation of this finding is that the drunk received less help because he was seen as responsible for his misfortune.

6. Who do we help?

a) Naturalistic studies (e.g., Form & Nosow, 1958) of disasters such as tornadoes indicate that people tend to first help family members, then friends and neighbors, and finally strangers. Even a brief acquaintance with someone increases the rate of helping (Liebhart, 1972).

b) Attractive recipients are more likely to be helped than unattractive recipients (Gross, Wallston, & Piliavin, 1975).

c) Similarity also increases helping behavior. For instance, Emswiller, Deaux, and Willits (1971) reported that "hippie" and "straight" subjects were more likely to give dimes to those who resembled them in appearance than to dissimilar solicitors. People also tend to help those who share their opinions and beliefs.

7. Rewards and costs: Many investigations have demonstrated that social or tangible rewards increase the likelihood of helping. On the other hand, we are less likely to offer assistance if there is a high cost (e.g., time, money, our safety) for helping.

8. Would you be more likely to give help if you have listened to lectures on bystander intervention? Beaman et al. (1978) gave University of Montana undergraduates a lecture on the factors that influence prosocial behavior. Two weeks later the subjects were presented with an emergency. Forty-three percent of the subjects exposed to the lecture offered help. Only twenty-five percent of the students who did not hear the lecture gave assistance.
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