Gang Rape Raises Questions About Bystanders' Role

October 28, 2009|By Stephanie Chen, CNN

For more than two hours on a dark Saturday night, as many as 20 people watched or took part as a 15-year-old California girl was allegedly gang raped and beaten outside a high school homecoming dance, authorities said.

As hundreds of students gathered in the school gym, outside in a dimly lit alley where the victim was allegedly raped, police say witnesses took photos. Others laughed.

"As people announced over time that this was going on, more people came to see, and some actually participated," Lt. Mark Gagan of the Richmond Police Department told CNN.

The witnesses failed to report the crime to law enforcement, Gagan said. The victim remained hospitalized in stable condition. Police arrested five suspects and more arrests were expected.

So why didn't anyone come forward?

Criminology and psychology experts say there could be a variety of reasons why the crime wasn't reported. Several pointed to a problematic social phenomenon known as the bystander effect. It's a theory that has played out in lynchings, college riots and white-collar crimes.

Under the bystander effect, experts say that the larger the number of people involved in a situation, the less will get done.

"If you are in a crowd and you look and see that everyone is doing nothing, then doing nothing becomes the norm." explains Drew Carberry, a director at the National Council on Crime Prevention.

Carberry said witnesses can be less likely to report a crime because they reinforce each other with the notion that reporting the crime isn't necessary. Or, he says, witnesses may think another person in the crowd already reported the incident. The responsibility among the group becomes diffused.

"Kids learn at a young age when they observe bullying that they would rather not get involved because there is a power structure," Carberry adds.

The phrase bystander effect was coined in the 1960s after people watched or heard a serial killer stalk and stab a woman in two separate attacks in the Queens neighborhood of New York.

Kitty Genovese struggled with the attacker on the street and in her building. She shrieked for help and was raped, robbed and murdered. When witnesses in the building were questioned by police about why they remained silent and failed to act, one man, according to the 1964 New York Times article that broke the story, answered, "I didn't want to be involved."

Explanations for the Bystander Effect:


There are two major factors that contribute to the bystander effect:

  1. First, the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of those present.

  1. The second reason is the need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate. Other researchers have found that onlookers are less likely to intervene if the situation is ambiguous(2). In the case of Kitty Genovese, many of the 38 witnesses reported that they believed that they were witnessing a "lover's quarrel," and did not realize that the young woman was actually being murdered.

In these Situations: What can We do as Bystanders?


As individuals we can:



As bystanders witnessing a dangerous situation we can:


Psychology:The Bystander Effect The University of New Hampshire Prevention Innovations