The bystander effect, which was first identified in the late 1960s, describes a fascinating quirk of human behavior: Our level of altruistic behavior depends, in large part, to the circumstances we find ourselves in.
As studies has shown, we’re relatively likely to help someone in trouble if we’re the only source of available assistance. But if we’re one of a number of possible saviors, we’re more likely to hold back and see if anyone else steps forward.
Does this inconsistency reflect an innate impulse, or learned behavior? Newly published research suggests that if it's the latter, we pick it up very early in life.
It finds the bystander effect is operative for kids as young as age five.
Participants who perceived themselves as one of three children who could easily offer assistance were the least likely to help.
“Five-year-olds help at very high levels only when responsibility is clearly attributable to them,” reports a research team led by Maria Plötner of the Mark Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “They are less likely to help when the presence of other potential helpers causes a diffusion of responsibility.”
In other words, if Timmy can help, why should I?
In the journal Psychological Science, Plötner and her colleagues describe an experiment featuring 60 children, all age five. All were brought to a room where they were assigned to color a picture while the experimenter sat nearby doing other work.
One-third found themselves the only child in the room. Another third sat near two other children, who had been instructed to stay passive during the experiment. The final third also were joined by two other children, but those new acquaintances “were fenced in and unable to leave their compartments.”
At a given point, the experimenter “accidentally” knocked over a cup and spilled colored water all over the table where she was working. After giving initial hints such as “Oops!” she noted after 30 seconds that “The water is about to drip to the floor.”
If the child being tested did not respond, she upped the ante to “I need something to wipe it up” (at 45 seconds), “I need the paper towels there” (at 60 seconds), and “Could somebody give me the paper towels there? (at 90 seconds). The children were scored on whether they responded and how quickly they did so.
The key result: Participants who perceived themselves as one of three children who could easily offer assistance were the least likely to help.
"When bystanders were present but confined behind a barrier and therefore unavailable to help, children helped just as often as they did when they were alone," the researchers write. "Thus it was not (a question of) shyness to act in front of others. Rather, it appears that the effect was driven by the diffusion of responsibility."
"This conclusion is supported by the interview (each child gave after completing the experiment), in which children were more likely to report that it was their job to help in the alone and bystander-unavailable conditions than in the bystander condition," they add. "Children at this age therefore take responsibility into account when deciding whether to help."
What’s more, in interviews conducted after the experiment, the five-year-olds demonstrated another troubling adult tendency: rationalization.
"Almost half of the children in the bystander condition (mainly those who had not helped during the test) said that they had not known how to help," the researchers write. "This is actually unlikely to be the case, because the experimenter demonstrated how to use the paper towels before the test, and directly asked for paper towels during the response phase."
So why did the kids claim they had no idea what to do? "Potentially to save face," the researchers speculate, "or to make themselves feel better about not having helped."
So, by age five, we’re not only waiting to see if anyone else will volunteer before doing so ourselves: We’re making up excuses for our behavior. The results suggest that the importance of showing leadership and taking responsibility needs to be taught—and the sooner, the better.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.