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Would you ignore a cry for help?

25 Oct 2016  |  Richard Shotton 
Would you ignore a cry for help?

Appealing for help from a group is often hampered by a diffusion of responsibility, writes Richard Shotton. How do we change this?

In New York in 1964 there were 636 murders. But only one made the front page of the New York Times: that of Kitty Genovese.

In the early hours of 13 March, Kitty drove home after locking up the bar where she was manager. Back in Queen's, as she walked the short distance from her car to her apartment, she was attacked. Her assailant, Winston Moseley, repeatedly stabbed her, until a light coming on in a nearby house panicked him into fleeing.

Ten minutes later and Kitty, not yet fatally injured, staggered to the vestibule of her apartment block. No-one came to her aid. Moseley, emboldened by this lack of public attention, tracked her down and continued the assault.

Twenty minutes later, she was dead.

And the reason it so horrified the New York Times? There were 37 witnesses, but not one intervened or called the police. It caused a city-wide bout of soul-searching. Was this a symbol of the depths to which the city had sunk?

An alternative explanation

Two psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley, read the reports and wondered if the press had come to the wrong conclusion. Perhaps it wasn't despite the 37 witnesses, it was because there were 37, that there was no help.

Intrigued by the case, they faked a number of emergencies and monitored whether people were more likely to help if they were alone or in groups. In one such experiment, they recruited students for a discussion about personal problems. While a student was completing the test, one of the psychologists' helpers pretended to have an epileptic fit in a neighbouring room. Of the students who were alone, 85% went to help; this figure dropped to 31% when they were in groups of four.

Latane and Darley repeated the experiment with different types of emergencies. Each generated the same result: people in groups were less likely to help. They termed this the 'bystander effect'.

Their explanation was that appeals for help to groups are hampered by a diffusion of responsibility. Each individual in the group thinks: why should I suffer the inconvenience and danger of helping, when others have also been asked?

Large groups may hinder message uptake

Group size should be considered when planning media.

On one hand, if an ad is trying to appeal for help, say for a charity or government campaign, then broadcast appeals will be sub-optimal. These campaigns benefit from creating a sense that people are being asked individually.

An example of this was a project with the Give Blood campaign, in which the creative was adapted to highlight dwindling stocks in specific cities, rather than the country as a whole. This led to a marked improvement in response rates.

But the impact of big groups is not always negative

Work by University of Houston psychologists, Yong Zhang and George Zinkan, shows that the same piece of creative tends to be judged as funnier when it's seen in a group.

Their experiment involved recruiting 216 people to watch soft drink commercials in groups of one, three and six. Their key finding was that ads tended to be rated as least funny when they were watched alone.

In contrast, ads watched in groups of three were reported to be 20% funnier than those watched alone. This finding has been supported by numerous other studies.

The impact of large groups might be due to social proof - this is the psychological idea that people are consciously, or subconsciously, influenced by what others are doing around them. So if one person in the group laughs, this subconsciously encourages others to find the content funny.

The varied effect of group size, perceived or actual, suggests that messages are sensitive to small contextual factors. If campaigns are to be as effective as possible, we need to test which contexts will boost the power of the campaign.

A final twist to the Kitty Genovese story

More than 40 years after Kitty's senseless murder, investigative journalists revealed that the police exaggerated the bystanders' apathy. Some neighbours had in fact called the cops that night, but in the words of the New York Post, the police commissioner "lazily passed a falsehood to a journalist".

Intriguingly, a lie led to an important truth.


Richard Shotton is head of insight at Zenith

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27 May 2020 

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