Who might intervene if a witness to a disturbing incident ?

Predicting bystander intervention: Do levels of empathy, self-reported aggression, and the relationship to the victim determine whether a bystander will intervene physically and verbally during witness intervention?

J Mariner (supervised by Josh Davis)

BSc Psychology Research Project

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this project. This study aimed to advance the knowledge of the likelihood of intervention in different disturbing events we might encounter in the street, while also examining differences in the participant’s behaviours/actions, based on the following factors: a) relationship status to victim/aggressor, b) empathy, c) self-reported aggression, d) age, and e) gender. In addition to this, we examined whether these four factors would predict whether the participant would: a) physically and verbally intervene, or b) call for third-party intervention (e.g. police).

The written incidents presented as vignettes were a replicated Kitty Genovese event (an infamous New York murder in which no one intervened despite many hearing her screams), animal cruelty, bullying and physical assault.

In total, the final number of participants was 230, between the ages of 18 and 81 (female = 173 (75.2%), male = 57 (24.8%)). Most were white (74.3%), owned a pet at some point during their life (79.1%), had witnessed or experienced bullying (84.3%), or witnessed physical assault (65.1%). Just over half had experienced physical assault (53.9%).

The results showed that participants mainly claimed they would be more likely to intervene physically and verbally, rather than seeking third-party intervention. Empathy was a positive predictor of physical and verbal intervention in all conditions. This may be because people would generally choose to intervene directly, in order to promptly stop what was occurring, rather than seek assistance.

Interestingly, the relationship of the participant to the fictitious aggressor/victim impacted intervention decisions across most incidents, except the replicated Kitty Genovese scenario, where relationship had no predictive power. This finding would contradict our hypothesis that ‘the closer one is to the victim, the more likely they are to intervene’. However, our findings showed that more participants would have called for third-party assistance if they had encountered a ‘Kitty Genovese’ event rather than intervening personally.

In the Kitty Genovese scenario, age, gender (female = 0, male = 1) and empathy were positive predicting factors. This relationship with age, not found in other conditions, suggests that due to greater life experiences, older people may feel they are more capable of assisting in the scenario. Likewise, gender (males more likely) also only positively predicted intervention in the public assault and Kitty Genovese scenario, which may be due to their severity. These results supported our hypotheses that, ‘males are more likely to intervene physically and verbally’ and that ‘females are more likely to call for third-party assistance’.


©2019 by SR

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