It is believed that there’s safety in numbers – the more people present, the greater the chance that someone intervenes?

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Let’s take two potential scenarios. One (Scenario A) is that you’re walking down a dark alleyway at night. There are just two other people there. One attacks and wrestles your wallet from you. The implication is that because there is only one person who could intervene to help you, you are less safe. In Scenario B you are in the middle of a large park in a city during the daytime with dozens of people close by. Again someone attempts to attack you and seize your wallet. Would feel safer in that case?

The overwhelming majority of people will answer Scenario B is safer, for the simple reason that there are dozens of people nearby who can intervene to help you, whereas in Scenario A there is just one person. But, as Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein explore, this is actually a myth. Often we are safer in Scenario A.

In order to determine why this occurs two psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, began researching the topic back in the 1960s. What they determined was that this non-interventionism amongst crowds during an emergency is related to social psychology. If you are just one of the forty people watching what appears to be an emergency, but nobody else is intervening, often your brain will subliminally conclude that this must not be an emergency after all. Consequently, you follow the others in this situation and don’t do anything.

But there is a second reason for this non-interventionism. Strength in numbers will actually reduce people’s instinct to respond because they believe someone else will do so. Thus, if we return to Scenario A and Scenario B at the start, there is a greater likelihood that the one person in the alleyway that can help you will respond because they know there is nobody else there to intervene. It’s up to them to help you. Conversely, in Scenario B everyone is much more hesitant about responding because they assume one of the dozens of other people watching on is going to do so any second.

As such, strength in numbers is not always a safer situation, because it reduces people’s feeling of individual responsibility. The good news, as Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio and Beyerstein describe it, is that once people are educated on this paradoxical issue, they often are much more inclined to respond quickly even when there are others around to help too.


References

Beaman, A., Barnes, P., Klentz, B., & McQuirk, B. (1978). ‘Increasing helping rates through information dissemination: Teaching pays’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 4, pp 406–411.

Furnham, A. (1992). ‘Prospective psychology students’ knowledge of psychology’, Psychological Reports, Vol. 70, pp 375–382.

Gergen, K. J. (1973). ‘Social psychology as history’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 26, pp 309–320.

Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). ‘Group inhibition of bystander intervention’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 10, pp 215–221.

Lenz, M. A., Ek, K., & Mills, A. C. (2009, March 26). ‘Misconceptions in psychology’, Presentation at 4th Midwest Conference on Professional Psychology, Owatonna, Minnesota.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2009). 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior. John Wiley & Sons.

About the author

M. Leblanc

Trainer, martial artist (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), avid self-improver