Psychological experts explain why we “freeze” during danger, and what we can do to fight that instinct.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was killed outside her apartment building in densely populated Queens, New York. As the story goes, there were dozens of people that heard the young woman screaming for help but none of them acted or went to Genovese’s aid. The infamous murder launched decades of studies investigating the “bystander effect,” where a diffusion of responsibility and fear of risk leads to inaction on the part of people who may be able to rectify a risky situation.

“Fear is a huge de-motivator for people,” Matt Langdon said in a phone interview. Langdon is the founder of the Hero Construction Company, a company that helps train everyday people to develop and foster heroic tendencies. Langdon has worked closely with renowned psychological researcher Philip Zimbardo, one of the foremost authorities on the bystander effect and its impacts on human behavior. “What we try to do is increase the small chance that any one person will act and make it more likely they’ll do something. And once that happens, that’s a gateway to other people helping and they might be motivated to get past their fear to do something as well.”

Stephanie Preston, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, says that those reactions aren’t just present in humans either. She points to a research study where rats were presented with an opportunity to help a fellow rodent and that, once an unfamiliar rat was released into the scenario, the group of familiar rats saw their stress hormones spike. “When there's strangers, there's this added inhibition from acting,” she said. “There’s this fear of what the other people are going to think, or what they're going to do, and how they're going to judge you, and you don't have any knowledge about if they could be more helpful.” Diffusion of responsibility and fear of judgement are driving factors behind the bystander effect, and why many would rather do nothing than risk making a serious mistake.

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at BBC.