What Would You Do if You Witnessed a Murder?


This may come as a surprise to most, but in psychology it is widely assumed that when witnessing a crime most people will just stand by and not do anything to help. Don’t worry, this doesn’t make you a bad person. However, much like with Milgram’s electric shock experiment, human behaviour can be extremely surprising.

The theory proposed to be behind this is the bystander effect. This social pychological phenomenon basically means that when they are in, or witnessing, an emergency situation, individuals do not offer help to the victim when other people are present. That part is important, as the more people witnessing the event, the less likely the individual is to help. It is widely assumed that more bystanders cause people to deny responsibility for helping the victim. In these cases, people tend to think that someone else will do it.

In many noted crimes, this has been just what has happened, and people have died due to the bystander effect. Here are just a few for you to look at:

Kitty Genovese:

On March 13th, 1964, 28 year old Kitty was on her way home from work at 3am – in Queens, New York. This is when she was stabbed to death by a serial rapist and murderer, whilst screaming and pleading for someone to help her. It was reported that there were 38 witnesses to the crime, and none of them helped her. This is an example used in psychology textbooks across the globe as a classic example of the bystander effect.

Axel Casian:

In 2008, 2 year old Axel Casian was stomped to death by his father (Sergio Aguiar), who claimed that he “had to get the demons out”. This was witnessed by family, friends and strangers – and this included a volunteer fire chief. The fire cheif’s fiancee eventually called 911 and Aguiar was soon shot in the head by Officer Ramar, but this was too late. Witnesses said they were scared to help the boy out because they were scared that Aguiar had something in his pocket. Psychologists explained this fear, stating that ordinary people would not tackle a psychotic, as they are not psychologically prepared to help. Being frozen from indecision and fear is a normal reaction to these situations.

Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax:

April 2010 was when Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax was stabbed to death in New York City (one of the busiest cities in the world) after he had helped a women being attacked by a robber – the opposite of what psychologists would expect, but this doesn’t apply to everyone. It was Almost 25 people had walked past Yax as he lay dyeing for more than an hour on the sidewalk, and some people even took pictures of him, but none called for emergency services.


It is surprising to think that these things actually happen, as I would like to think that I wouldn’t fall under this category. But, if you think about it, what would you do if you witnessed a murder like the ones described above? I actually couldn’t say.

A quick word in defense of the American citizen (and other countries), the reports of these crimes has been widely criticised by psychologists. In the case of Kitty Genovese, an article published in American Psychologist in 2007 claims that the story was exaggerated by the media, and is now used in psychology textbooks as a dramatic example of this theory for students. They claim that there were not specifically 38 witnesses, and many of them couldn’t see the attack; the police were also contacted at least once during the attack.

So, what do you think, do you believe in the bystander effect?


Written by: Philippa Berry

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