The Bystander Problem

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Published: Apr 06, 2016

The Bystander Problem

A story that has always intrigued me, and that I actually wrote about last year in a summer blog, came back to mind this week. It revolves around the murder of a woman named Kitty Genovese.

Why has this come back to mind?

Her murderer, Winston Moseley, died in prison this week at the age of 81.

The details have become ingrained in our cultural ethos. It was New York City in 1964. Kitty, a young woman from Queens, was stabbed to death. But this was no ordinary murder. She was chased by her assailant and attacked three times on the street, over the course of half an hour, while 38 of her neighbors watched from their windows. 

During the entire half-hour ordeal, not a single one of them came to her aid or rescue. They didn’t shout out or call for help. They didn’t even bother to pick up the phone and call the police.

As one reporter on the death of Moseley noted, her murder “came to symbolize… indifference.” Her death did, however, prompt the adoption of our current 911 system and Good Samaritan laws.

But do these systems and laws really address the “bystander problem?”

Two New York City psychologists – one from Columbia University and the other from NYU – decided they wanted to dig deeper into what they called the “bystander problem.” In a fascinating set of studies, outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point, these two psychologists decided they would stage a series of emergencies of differing kinds and in different settings in order to see who would come to help.

They found out that one single factor determined whether people responded to a need. It wasn't the severity of the crisis or the degree to which the person screamed or called for help. It wasn't even the characteristics of the people in the experiment – whether they were young or old, male or female, black or white. 

What mattered was how many witnesses there were to the event.

The more people who were around, the less people tended to respond.

In one of the experiments, they had a student who was alone in a room stage an epileptic fit. When there was just one person next door listening, that person rushed to the student's aid 85% of the time. But when the test subjects thought that there were as few as four others who also overheard the person having the seizure, they came to the student's aid only 31% of the time. From 85% response to 31% response – just because the sense of personal responsibility had been spread out.

The essence of what the two psychologists discovered is that when people are in a group, responsibility for taking personal action is diffused. It gets watered-down. People assume that someone else will make the call, report the problem, or respond to the need. Or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem isn't really a problem; because if it was, others would be responding.

Since no one else is responding, there must not be a problem.

Or because others are around – witnessing what they are witnessing, experiencing what they are experiencing – the sense of personal duty, of personal responsibility, is somehow lessened.

So in the case of Kitty Genovese, social psychologists argue that the lesson isn't that no one called despite the fact that 38 people heard her scream; it’s that no one called because 38 people heard her scream.

If she had been attacked on a lonely street with just one witness, she might have lived. That one person might have felt a sense of obligation to respond. They would have been moved by the fact that it really was up to them.

I’ve often wondered why there can be such a lack of personal, individual responsibility – even among those who are Christ followers – in relation to the mission of the church established by Jesus to impact this world. It becomes almost natural for people to come, sit, enjoy, benefit, receive, appreciate and profit, but never feel a sense of personal responsibility for responding to the needs within its midst.

When they come, it seems like everything is cared for and everything is humming along. And if a need is made known? Well, there are so many others around that it never even enters their mind that there won’t be a response to meet that need or that things might depend on them. Whether it’s giving, serving, leading or inviting, there are others around to see it done.

And that’s why it’s not being done.

The idea that they are the key – that what they do or don’t do matters – isn’t even on their radar screen.

It’s not because they are hard-hearted or because they don’t care, but because they don’t feel like they have a personal responsibility to act. They don’t have a sense that there is a need for them, and them alone, to respond.

They can be lulled into becoming like one of the witnesses to the death of Kitty Genovese.

The result of that indifference was the death of a young woman. 

The result of Christian indifference to the cause of Christ will be the death of the church.

James Emery White


“Man who killed Kitty Genovese dies in prison at 81,” Associated Press in the Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2016, read online.

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point.

See also the chapter “We Are They” in the author’s What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church (Baker).

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Bystander Problem