It was a cold winter day in early 1999. I stood in an elevator with three undergraduate classmates from my Psych 225 course in Experimental Psychology.
We’d already ridden up and down several times, from the Memorial Library entrance to the top floor. We had an odd (and perhaps a bit creepy?) mission: We were waiting for a person to get on the elevator alone.
Finally, one did. Like us, she looked like a student, wrapped up in a hat, scarf and coat, with a backpack loaded with books over one shoulder and a thermos full of coffee in her hand. The elevator doors closed, and we began to ascend in silence.
My classmate dropped a handful of coins on the floor of the elevator, the sound deafening in the enclosed space. He mumbled apologetically and stooped to pick up the coins. The rest of us stood, staring straight ahead.
I felt a nervous giggle form in my chest and immediately suppressed it. My role was to stand, unmoving, with a deadpan expression, and laughter would ruin the experimental setting we had constructed.
The new arrival jumped slightly when the coins hit the floor, and then looked to the rest of the carriage’s inhabitants. She glanced back to the coins, back at us, and then stood, shifting her weight, twisting her thermos, staring somewhere between the floor and the ceiling, like she wished she were somewhere else.
The bystander effect refers to the phenomenon where an individual is less inclined to offer assistance when there are passive onlookers present. It’s primarily related to response in emergency situations. The most common example used to illustrate it is the 1968 rape and murder of Kitty Genovese, where an unverified number of neighbors heard Kitty crying for help but no one intervened until it was too late.
The bystander effect is often mentioned in introductory psychology textbooks, and that’s why we found ourselves spending time in a university library elevator: We were attempting to replicate the finding. In most…