The spark for research into the behaviour of bystanders was the brutal murder of a young woman in a New York street in 1964. The assault and murder took place over a period of half an hour, and more than 40 people heard the screams of the young woman. Not one person tried to help or make contact with the police. Social psychologists at the time viewed the most important aspect of this event as the behaviour of the inactive witnesses and set up a range of studies to investigate this. Many of these studies were conducted in the laboratory and looked at how people would respond to an emergency situation either when alone or in the presence of others. The emergency situations included hearing someone fall off a ladder, or being in a waiting-room and finding that smoke was coming under the door (for example, Latané & Darley, 1970). The studies suffered from a certain inauthenticity (in other words they lacked ecological validity), and the subjects often realised that the emergency was bogus. However, the researchers were able to introduce two new concepts into our understanding of social behaviour; pluralistic ignorance and diffusion of responsibility.
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