Bystander Apathy

Bystander apathy is the tendency of bystanders in some stressful or life-threatening situations to not react or intervene to help others.

What Is Bystander Apathy?

Bystander apathy is a symptom of the bystander effect. The bystander effect occurs when bystanders do not intervene when watching someone be victimized or otherwise in need of help. For example, bystanders witnessing a child being forced into a car by a stranger might not intervene to help or contact the police. The apathy of bystanders is a significant contributing factor to the bystander effect. This effect has been heavily documented, and there have been several well-publicized incidents of it, including an instance in which no bystander intervened to help murder victim Kitty Genovese.

What Causes Bystander Apathy?

Although bystanders to horrifying events have been criticized for their apathy, the apathy of bystanders seems to be a common phenomenon, and many people from many walks of life will not intervene in stressful circumstances. This apathy has been heavily studied, and researchers have documented several contributing factors including:

  • Size of the crowd: When people are in a large group they are less likely to intervene, possibly because they believe someone else will intervene. When a person is in a large group, they are less likely to view themselves as responsible for the well-being of a victim and therefore might be less likely to intervene.
  • Noticing and interpreting the event: When a stranger is in trouble, a bystander’s willingness to help depends first upon noticing the event. If a bystander does not see what is happening–as is common among rushed bystanders or in large crowds–they cannot intervene. Second, a bystander’s interpretation of the event can prevent intervention. A person might, for example, not intervene in a domestic violence incident because he or she views the incident as a private matter or does not perceive the victim as particularly threatened.


  1. Tyrrell, M. (n.d.). Bystander apathy – it’s none of my business! Uncommon Knowledge. Retrieved from
  2. Yudkowsky, E. (n.d.). Bystander apathy. Less Wrong. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

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