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Young children show the bystander effect in helping situations

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  • Maria Ploetner
  • Harriet Over
  • Malinda Carpenter
  • Michael Tomasello


Publication details

JournalPsychological Science
DatePublished - Apr 2015
Issue number4
Number of pages8
Pages (from-to)499-506
Original languageEnglish


Much research in social psychology has shown that otherwise helpful people often fail to
help when bystanders are present. Research in developmental psychology has shown that even very young children help, and that others’ presence can actually increase helping in some cases. In the current study, in contrast, 5-year-old children helped an experimenter at very high levels when they were alone, but significantly less in the presence of bystanders who were potentially available to help. In another condition designed to elucidate the mechanism underlying the effect, children’s helping was not reduced when bystanders were present but confined behind a barrier and thus unable to help (a condition that has not been run in previous studies with adults). Young children thus show the bystander effect, and it is not due to social referencing or shyness to act in front of others, but rather to a sense of a diffusion of responsibility.

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(c) The Authors, 2015. This is an author produced version of a paper accepted for publication in Psychological Science. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher's self-archiving policy.

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