Eye-Witness To A Crime And Not Raisins – Reflections On The Bystander Effect In Helping Behaviour

Please note – as per request, a trigger-warning: this account features a case of witnessing self-harm.

Recently I commented on Twitter that I just returned from a court-case, where I called in as a witness to an assault that occurred at the end of August last year. The trial didn’t occur: the defendant pleaded guilty and we spent much of the day waiting in a rather new, high-ceiling, glass-walled building with no coffee machine and chocolate costing three dollars from the vending machine.

It wasn’t much fun, but it was more fun than being grilled by a defence attorney as to whether I was lying about what I saw.

One of the questions I was asked about the day:

What does a skeptic, who knows the faults of eye-witness testimony, do when they themselves are asked to do their civic duty and provide eye-witness testimony about a crime they observed?

I’m now back studying Psychology this year (after deferring due to full-time work); one of the first assignments I did as a student in first-year was on helping behaviour.

John Darley and Bibb Latané suggested a complex explanation for why people may not help in an emergency; via staging emergencies, these experimenters showed that helping was deterred by the presence of other witnesses (or bystanders). Increasing the number of bystanders in fact decreases the likelihood of helping (which isn’t very comforting, if you think about the dictum “safety in numbers”).

There were plenty of people in the crowded marketplace where we saw the attack. Only two of us went to the police. Both of us had been assaulted in that city in the past.

On the basis of their findings, John Darley and Bibb Latané (1968) proposed this five-step cognitive process that a bystander must go through when they’re deciding whether to help:

  • Notice the event.
  • Decide whether it’s an emergency.
  • Decide whether to take personal responsibility for helping.
  • Decide how to give help.
  • Actually give help.

According to the theory, if a bystander makes an unfavourable decision at any one of the steps, it can lead to not helping.

Some of the factors that can influence helping include social comparison: you check the behaviour of others to interpret the event (“Is  this a fight going on in front of us? It is, isn’t it?“) – acting unconcerned and calm may create a situation of pluralistic ignorance (Brehem & Kassin, 1996) and can lead to others thinking that there isn’t really an emergency. On the other hand, if someone does interpret it as an emergency or demonstrates a helping response – then others may be prompted to help too.

Plenty of other factors can stop you from helping out too. You feel overly self-conscious about helping, worry about making a mistake. I can imagine a skeptically-minded person could potentially not go to the police after seeing a crime, because they doubt the legitimacy of their own eye-witness testimony, for example. I personally think that learning how to do first aid is a big help in building your confidence as to “what to do” in the case of an emergency, and lessens being self-conscious about it.

When it comes to helping someone when a crime is being committed – part of what I consider to be “helping” is to report it to the authorities.

When it comes to memory, self-deception and eye-witness testimony, I remember reading Robert E. Bartholomew on the CSICOP website, where he discusses the panic that broke out on October 30, 1938, as a result of the radio broadcast of War Of The Worlds:

In his famous study of the Martian panic, Princeton University psychologist Hadley Cantril discusses the extreme variability of eyewitness descriptions of the “invasion.” These examples have been usually overlooked in subsequent popular and scholarly discussions of the panic. One person became convinced that they could smell the poison gas and feel the heat rays as described on the radio, while another became emotionally distraught and felt a choking sensation from the imaginary “gas” (Cantril 1947, 94-95). During the broadcast several residents reported observations to police “of Martians on their giant machines poised on the Jersey Palisades” (Markush 1973, 379). After checking various descriptions of the panic, Bulgatz (1992, 129) reported that a Boston woman said she could actually see the fire as described on the radio; other persons told of hearing machine gun fire or the “swish” sound of the Martians. A man even climbed atop a Manhattan building with binoculars and described seeing “the flames of battle.”

The event also reminds us that the human mind does not function like a video camera capturing each piece of data that comes into its field of vision. People interpret information as it is processed.

So, what did I do when it came to recording an event that I might have to report to the police?

I Tweeted the numberplate of the car. I phoned 000 (which is the number for emergency services in this country) and gave a description of exactly what I was seeing in front of me. Then we went straight to the police as soon as it was safe to do so (there were extenuating circumstances) and gave the same details to them, within five minutes of the crime.

In addition, I wrote it down it as soon as I got home, and I gave a copy of what I wrote to the police when they called me in to make a statement about the crime.

What can I tell you then about witnessing something then?

What follows is something I wrote, several years ago now – and you can see for yourself how the emotional state I was in colours the eventual account. It is different to the crime I was called in for, but it demonstrates how writing up the event reflects not only demonstrates what I remembered about an emergency, but what it can be like when you choose to help.

This was written about half an hour after the event.


Then she handed me the razor blade and I realised that I was standing in her blood.

There’s always taxis when you don’t need them and never police or ambulance. Maybe that’s just today that I feel that angry about it, but it’s something I’ve observed before. I presented on a panel about coincidences, so I really should know better. I clearly don’t.

There were dots of red paint, on the path, in the rain. I thought as I walked looking at them that it was a lot more than someone who had a leaking paint-tin and it reminded me of a sudden nosebleed a kid had, which I once saw in the city. They freaked out, must have been their first time.

She was standing outside the news agency, with her arm dripping red stripes. And I went, ‘!! Did you hurt yourself? What happened?‘ and she screamed into the news agency for someone to get the police.

I thought someone attacked her – I thought that the first step was to stop the bleeding and so I took off my jumper thinking I could use it as a tourniquet at least, and she said no. She just didn’t want the mess on the floor. She didn’t like the pattern of the blood, apparently. She didn’t want me to touch her. She said that quite plainly: “Don’t touch me“.

If I touch her, that’s assault. I can’t do first aid if someone says “Do not help me“.

There was another lady walking past, who said (of all things) that she was a student of phlebotomy. I didn’t know exactly what phlebotomy involved, but I knew it had something to do with veins. I wrote it down later, ‘phleb-something’ so I wouldn’t forget. She said that on her course there were two police officers, because they were learning it for drug testing. She said that much later though. But I remember that.

Phlebotomy-student tried to help too, firstly by insisted on stemming the bleeding – but the lady said again, no, she didn’t want that. I said she needed a chair and that we’ll clean up the floor for her? Asked if I could take her bag? And I thought she said ‘Can you take my raisins?’

And then she handed me the razor blade.

We got her a chair, at the cafe, out of the rain. The newsagency called police; the cafe apparently called the ambulance later. Freaking cafe people, especially the servers, just staring. I brought sweet tea as it was all I could think of since she didn’t want a bandage. The snotty server didn’t seem to realise that it was for shock. Doesn’t anyone do sodding First Aid anymore?

Also, what idiots would let their child wander up to us in the middle of all this and start asking why she was bleeding and not take her away from all the blood? Phlebotomy-student just turned and looked at the parents and said ‘are you helping here??’ and they got the point and finally left.

A nurse was walking past at the time, at some time, maybe five minutes after and she came over. It all happened at 6.25 – my watch is five minutes fast. If they call me, I must remember that.

The nurse sat with her and talked to her. Later the nurse said that she said that she had done it before, she was all alone and no friends and that the voices told her to kill herself.

I had towels in the back of my car, parked near the cafe. Someone said I ‘sure had a lot of towels’ but I didn’t say anything about Douglas Adams. I had them left over from the gym, from dance class, all that.

We all mopped up the blood off the ground and put the towels under where her arm was – as she kept saying she didn’t want a mess on the floor. At one point I misheard and tried to dab her hand and she said no, she did not want to be touched. So I spread the towels more on the floor, underneath her arm, instead. The nurse was dabbing her other hand. She drank the tea, got a cigarette and smoked. The nurse got her a coffee too – of course, the sodding cafe were quite willing to take money as they stared at us.

When the nurse got a bandage later, the chemist apparently sort of stared at her too when she said it was an emergency. I think we were both really unimpressed with the shopkeepers around there.

The blood gelled – I didn’t know it’d do that, like stalactites. It hung from her arm, dripping. It was getting colder, but I don’t think that was why.

Then Phlebotomy-student said that she had just started studying and that it was only today that she learned blood can do that. I said I had once written 3000 words on cutting behavior once, for an Educational Psychology assignment. Two of us, doing meta-analysis as we stood in the evidence of her life as she tried to end her life.

My shoes were getting soaked, I think it was mostly rain. I hope it was rain. You couldn’t tell much anymore, everything was running pink.

It was weird, we were both calm and just going through steps. Clean the blood again. The rain was getting most of it by now.

I stood in the rain and watched taxis go frickin’ past. I waited to wave the police or ambulance down, so they knew which cafe it was out of the handful that are on that street.

I thought about my worst recurring nightmare: I am silently screaming for help and everyone I care about turns their back and slowly walks away from me.

Then the police came the wrong way up the one-way street so I wouldn’t have seen them anyway and they had a prisoner in the back and had to figure out what to do but at least they had plastic gloves and I was kicking myself because I have those in my car as well but I only brought out towels. I am useless, I am.

They put the car racks around her as there were nosy kids about and people are just sodding rude and just stand and sneer or stare. Then the ambulance arrived and they used the bandage the nurse got and they took my and Annika’s details (she was the Phlebotomy-student) and then they took her away.

I spoke to the nurse before she left, thanked her too. Her name was Susan.

I put my towels in the bin.

My friend Athon would have known what to do. And he would have known why blood does that. He would have known immediately that phlebotomy involved blood. And he would have had his damned mobile phone on him rather than leaving it at home, and he wouldn’t have relied on a bunch of cafe shop owners who just stared. At least the newsagency gave the nurse a box of tissues to get the blood spatters off her skirt and then got a proper bucket and mop when I took away my towels.

One shop, out of four in the vicinity, who did something other than stare. Only three people on the street who did something to help. At least a hundred people in the vicinity overall. Guess what, Darley and Latané, you’re right again. Bastards.

I don’t want my orange juice anymore – it feels like it has blood in it and I had a shower and I think my coat needs to go to the cleaners and I don’t know what to do about my shoes and I’m going to bed now even though I’m hungry.


Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). “Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8: 377–383.

Brehm, S. S. & Kassin, S. M. (1996). Social Psychology (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Photo: “It rained today, V” by Newtown grafitti at http://www.flickr.com/photos/newtown_grafitti/5775634092.

At #GenghisConPerth and RTRFM’s #DistantMurmurs
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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • L

    I was about to suggest that you put a trigger-warning on this post because of the content (self-harming). But at least you did something to help them out.

    Could you really be prosecuted for helping someone who had seriously injured themselves? What if she threw herself in front of a car and you went past and she was conscious, could she have told you NOT to help?

    • Kylie Sturgess

      You’re right about triggers – edit promptly added at the the start of blog-post. Apologies for not adding it sooner.

      Secondly, I’d have to do some research on that, anyone here know? I remember that it could be seen as assault if you’re told not to touch someone. Would I have to wait until someone passed out??

  • Josh

    Holy crap, Kylie. Thanks for the response, but I can see now that you already knew all about it. Far too much, it seems. Sorry you had to go through that.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      I think that having gone through that was a factor which made me more determined to do something to help, so it was a boon in the end.

  • StevoR

    Isn’t the science of blood actually haematology?

    • Kylie Sturgess

      AH! My bad! I see where I left out a sentence, sorry about that – corrected, thanks!
      Taking of blood is the career of the phlebotomist. She was trained to draw blood from a live person or animal. Phlebotomy is the process of making an incision in a vein. I’d never heard of the job before, until she said it and because I misheard it, had to look it up.

      • StevoR

        No worries! Thanks.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Later, she noticed her rear-view mirror showed a lot more plain white cars, each holding two stiff-faced men wearing dark glasses. Then she found that enigmatic note mysteriously slipped into her coat pocket.

    It was almost a relief when the tall, dark stranger knocked on her door and hinted about personal secrets she had thought no one now alive could have known…

    • Kylie Sturgess

      …what a shame for your fantasy that this is a true story.

      The police, in case you’re wondering, never did contact me about the woman who self-harmed in a public venue. I never saw it reported in the news and for some time I didn’t go to the cafe on that street because I was so pissed off about how casual they were about the incident.

      I don’t think I even look at the spot where she did it anymore, even though I might go past there a few times a year.

  • StevoR

    Good eyewitness account though.

    Reminds me of a line from a Sylvia Plath poem – forgotten which one (anyone know?) – about the peanut munching crowd standing around gawping.

  • http://mamamara.wordpress.com Mara

    I’ve been in a number of situations involving someone who is injured. In some cases, I’m proud to say, I’ve done well. And in some I haven’t.

    Many years ago, I was one of three people working on a Saturday in a small historic house in Maryland. A woman crashed her car into our building and the three of us rendered first aid, called an ambulance, and called her husband. Later that *same day*, a car was hit right in front of our building and we did pretty much the same thing. I’m moderately proud of my reactions that day.

    A few weeks ago I was driving through Baltimore trying to find the hospital in order to visit a friend. As I was turning a corner, there was a man lying on the ground, rolling around in pain (it seemed). There were three people standing nearby and one was holding a cell phone in her hand. But, of course, I have no way of knowing if she’d actually *done* anything with it.

    I should have stopped. For all I know, her cell phone was dead and they were standing around and wringing their hands. I should have at least paused long enough to call 911 and give them the street corner. I didn’t. And I will always regret that and hope I do better next time.

  • Art

    I don’t have much to say about the content of the events but I will offer some general advice for getting help from people. If you need help address yourself to a particular person. Crying out to a crowd ‘help me’ is going to have people looking at each other and subconsciously calculating how getting involved will look and play out. And when in doubt most people will assume it isn’t ‘their’ problem and that ‘someone else’ will deal with it.

    Be polite and literally ask for help. Ordering people when your covered in blood and asking them to ‘yknow’, or ‘do something’ is not going to help. Swallow your pride and use the words: Sir/Maam please help me. When they respond tell them specifically what you want them to do. In emergencies people’s brains freeze and they can’t figure out what to do. It often takes a few minutes for people to transition from normal life to emergency.

    If you are on the helping side of things and want help do put people on the spot. If you want someone to call 911 pick someone who looks like they can handle the job, point directly and unambiguously at them, and tell them in a commanding but calm and moderated voice to ‘call 911′. This works a lot better than announcing to the gathered crowd ‘someone call 911′.

    Make sure they, and the crowd, knows they are being given a mission. Tell people what you expect of them: ‘You, big guy, stop traffic so we don’t get run over. Lady in red, I saw a cop down the block that way, get him. Go as fast as you can.’

    Put on the spot people will usually rise to the occasion because now the crowd knows what they are supposed to be doing. Nobody wants to look ineffectual to a crowd. Pretty much everyone wants to be a hero. To be one of the people who were useful when the chips were down.