Good Samaritanism


Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York City, 1964. She was first stabbed but her attacker ran when a neighbour shouted at the man to leave her alone. Kitty got up, staggered back home – still alone – to her apartment. She was lying in a hallway and barely conscious when her attacker returned, stabbed her, raped her, robbed her and left. It all lasted for about half an hour. Over a dozen people (usually cited as 38-40 bystanders but thought to be less) saw portions of the attack but none of them intervened or called the police until after the attacker had fled. Most bystanders thought they were witnessing a lovers’ quarrel or drunken brawl.

Kitty Genovese’s murder really got researchers thinking about bystander apathy (observers of an emergency situation failing to intervene). Two of the main concepts being highlighted were ‘diffusion of responsibility’ and ‘pluralistic ignorance’.

Diffusion of responsibility is when people are less likely to offer help if other people are present because they feel that the whole group is equally responsible, thus making themselves less personally responsible.

Pluralistic ignorance is the tendency for people in a group to mislead each other about an emergency situation. For example, someone might look at an emergency as being less dangerous because other people present are calm, unworried or passive.

A lot of laboratory experiments were carried out to test bystander apathy. The Piliavin’s (husband and wife) and Rodin didn’t support the use of an artificial setting and decided to investigate the issue with a field experiment. Different aspects would be tested in Piliavin’s experiment, such as whether the race or appearance of the victim affected the amount or speed of help they received.

The participants were around 4450 men and women travelling on a certain part of the New York underground between 11am and 3pm on weekdays from April 15th to June 26th, 1968. The average number of people in the train carriage was 43, of which 55% were White and 45% were Black.

There were four teams altogether with separate members (two men and two women in each team) and the experiment had 103 trials. The females sat outside the critical area (the area where the experiment took place) and recorded data discreetly. The men were the actors, one played the victim and the second played the helper.

After the train passed the first station, the victim would stagger forward and collapse. He would remain motionless on the floor and stare up at the ceiling. If he received no help by the time the train slowed to a stop, the male helper would intervene. The team would then get off the carriage and wait separately for a train going in the opposite direction. There they would repeat the trial.

Six to eight trials were conducted in a day.

The four victims (one from each team) were males and aged from 26 to 35 years old. Three were White, one was Black and all were identically dressed in jackets, old slacks and no tie.
There were two conditions:

  1. Drunk: On 38 trials, the victims smelled like alcohol and carried a bottle of alcohol in a brown bag
  2. Cane: On 65 trials, the victims looked sober and carried a black cane

The model helpers were White males aged 24 to 29 and all casually dressed. There were four helper conditions:

  1. Critical area – early: The model stood in the critical area and only helped the victim after passing the fourth station.
  2. Critical area – late: The model stood in the critical area and only helped the victim after passing the sixth station.
  3. Adjacent area – early: The model stood in the adjacent area and only helped the victim after passing the fourth station.
  4. Adjacent area – late: The model stood in the adjacent area and only helped the victim after passing the sixth station.

The female observers made different observations:

  • Total number of passengers who assisted the victim
  • The race, sex and location of passengers who assisted the victim
  • The time taken for help to arrive
  • Comments made by nearby passengers

Helping behaviour was much higher in this experiment than in the previous laboratory studies.

  • The cane victim was helped on 62 out of 65 trials (95%)
  • The drunk victim was helped on 19 out of 38 trials (50%)
  • 90% of passengers who helped the victim were male
  • On 60% of the total trials where help was given (i.e. 81 trials), more than one person offered help.
  • Race made no significant different to helping behaviour but there was a slightly tendency for same-race helpers in the drunk condition
  • 64% of the helpers were White
  • The quickest help came from larger groups (no diffusion of responsibility)
  • In 21 trials out of the grand total of 103, a total of 34 people left the critical area, mostly when the victim was drunk

Comments were also noted. The following comments were said by female passengers:

  • “It’s for men to help him.”
  • “I wish I could help him – I’m not strong enough.”
  • “I never saw this kind of thing before – I don’t know where to look.”
  • “You feel so bad that you don’t know what to do.”

Type of research method
This was a field experiment because it took place in a natural setting but certain factors were manipulated. It also had participant observation.

Independent variable
The IV was the condition of the victim (drunk or cane) and the race of the victim (Black or White).

Dependent variable
The DV was basically the reactions of the passengers. Did they help, look away, make a comment or move?


  1. High ecological validity: The experiment was very realistic, mostly due to the natural setting and the believable incident.
  2. Generalisable: The sample size was very large and consisted of random, diverse people. It can be seen as a relatively representative sample of New Yorkers and the results can be applied further.


  1. Lack of control: Since it was a field experiment and conducted in a natural setting, the experimenters had no control over external factors. Other variables may have affected the passengers’ reactions.
  2. Hard to replicate: Although the procedure could be replicated to an extent, the same passengers cannot be found and used again.

Ethical issues:

  1. Informed consent: Piliavin did not ask for the passengers’ consent.
  2. Deception: The passengers were deceived because they thought the incident was really occurring when, in reality, it was just an act.
  3. Confidentiality: Piliavin respected the identities of the passengers and did not invade anyone’s privacy.
  4. Emotional or physical harm: No physical harm took place. However, some passengers may have been a little distressed at the incident, especially in the drunk condition. Overall, though, there was very little chance of emotional harm.
  5. The right to withdraw: The passengers were not even aware that an experiment was taking place so no, they didn’t really have a right to withdraw. And anyway, how does one withdraw themselves from a moving train carriage?
  6. Debriefing: It would have been virtually impossible and incredibly time-consuming to grab every passenger and debrief them on the reality of the experiment so there was no debriefing.

Reference: Piliavin, I. M., Rodin, J. and Piliavin, J. (1969). Good Samaritanism: An Underground Phenomenon? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.