Open Book History

The Devil Complex: A Closer look at Conformity and the Bystander Effect

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Kitty Genovese

I have been introduced to the topic of social psychology many times through my three years researching and analyzing the testimonies of the Nazi doctors during the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1947. I have studied the groundbreaking experiments done by famous psychologists such as Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo to try to explain the phenomena of Nazi Germany, the power of authority and the results that come with the absence of responsibility. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I witnessed the very principle on which the Nazi’s based their arguments, that perplexed me. As I sat there behind my desk uninterestingly flipping through emails on my phone, a blind classmate entered the room, guide dog in tow. As she helplessly fumbled, tripped on her own feet and headed to the wrong desk, the classmates present just watched. To my dismay, five minutes had passed; five minutes I sat voiceless, watching with the rest of them. For five minutes I refused to help because after all, no one else was. It was the realization that, while researching the Holocaust and how Hitler could have had such an impact on his men to where they would commit systematic murder and then defend it with, “We did what we were told,” or, “We did it because the extermination of the ‘imperfect’ race was the duty of all Germans,” was the same principle of conformity exhibited by myself and my classmates. Although our indiscretion was on a small scale compared to Nazi Germany, the idea that anyone could be affected by this is frightening.

In comparison to the Nazi’s, I had also heard about another unfortunate case highlighting the bystander effect and the power of conformity. In the 1960s a woman was stabbed on a New York street. The dozens of tenants living in the lofts and apartments above the crime scene stood at their windows, witnesses to the crime. Although they heard the woman’s scream, no one tried to help or intervene. The women ran around the corner where she was stabbed eight more times in two more separate attacks by the perpetrator before lying dead on the sidewalk. There were thirty-seven witnesses to the crime; only one passer-byer called for help after it was too late. These bizarre and troubling instances have always left me with the same questions:

  • Why did these tragic events in history happen?
  • Why is it so hard for people to stand up or intervene in an emergency situation?
  • Why does it seem to be that the higher the number of witnesses, the lower the amount of assistance given to those in crisis?
  • Was the lunacy of the Nazi regime explainable under the principle of conformity and the bystander effect?
  • Finally, is conformity something that we can change or train our minds to resist, or is it really hard-wired into our DNA as human beings?

I am going to find out.

The Hunt


I was at first, a bit intimidated by all of the information offered regarding conformity and the bystander effect. I myself, being interested in this subject for quite some time, had purchased books such as, The Lucifer Effect written by Dr. Philip Zimbardo regarding his Stanford Prison Experiments done in the 1970s, as well as a book entitled, Kitty Genovese: The murder, the bystanders and the crime that changed America written by Kevin Cook, outlining the details of the tragic crime in Queens, New York in the 1960s. Along with finally pulling my heavily neglected books off the shelf, I turned to Academic Search Elite to see if I could find any further studies or opinions on the subject. It is there in which I found several academic journals that discussed the accuracy of Milgram and Zimbardo’s legendary studies. I also read articles with opposing opinions which in turn, yielded yet another search. This time I found an academic journal titled, “Obeying, joining, following, resisting, and other processes in Milgram studies, and in the Holocaust and other Genocide: Situations, personality, and bystanders” by Ervin Staub, a former co-worker of Stanley Milgram and a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. After pouring over his entry, I then turned to the almighty YouTube in hopes to find some real-life footage of the groundbreaking experiments such as the Stanford Prison Experiment; what I found both fascinated and floored me. Upon searching I came across a documentary called the Human Behavior Experiments aired by Court TV. This documentary not only highlighted the experiments in which I was seeking to learn more about but also gave me insight into a multitude of different materials and common day examples of the Bystander Effect. It also presented me with the idea of a phenomenon called “groupthink”, and left me with the inkling to research why we as human beings tend to only worry about the opinions or actions of others and use them to influence how we conform to certain situations. It was researching this aspect of things that got difficult. During my efforts, I did find an interesting and rather funny Candid Camera episode titled, “Face the Rear” dating back to 1962 which highlighted psychology pioneer Solomon Asch’s experiments regarding conformity. Through the surge of YouTube videos and multimedia, I was looking for a concrete explanation; a study that explained the strange happenings that is group-think. While digging a little deeper and after visiting multiple websites, I located an interesting piece of information published by Oregon State University Psychology department. The information sheet titled, “Group-think” runs through the definition and the key identifiers to use in order to spot a group of individuals influenced by group-think as well as the possible tools to help prevent the contamination of the group’s overall agenda. I viewed this as another resource in the fight against conformity; if you are not influenced by the principal of group-think you are one step closer to independent thinking, yay!

Uncovering the Facts and Shaking off the Dust 

Dr. Phillip Zimbardo

British statesman Sr. Edward Blake’s perception of conformity and the bystander effect could not have been more accurate, The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. (Zimbardo 313).” All over the world, there have been instances where good people, men, and women, had the opportunity to intervene in an uncomfortable or even tragic situation but instead, did nothing and allowed themselves to become a player on the stage for evil. For some of Hitler’s men in WWII, conformity became a means of survival, but is that the reason the S.S. murdered millions of men, women, and children? Two decades later a woman named Kitty Genovese walked home from her late shift tending bar at Ev’s 11th Hour Tavern in Hollis, Queens only to be stabbed in the middle of the night; thirty-seven neighbors were witnesses to the three separate attacks on Kitty, yet no one called for help (Cook 100). In 1971 a young psychologist eager to test his theory regarding the power of authority and role reversal set out to conduct a groundbreaking experiment in his field. Picking at random from a sea of student volunteers, Philip Zimbardo assigned them roles and placed them in a mock prison, never realizing that he himself would become the very example of conformity and the Bystander Effect (Zimbardo 171). In 1974 willing college professors gave deadly shocks to students who answered their questions wrong in Stanley Milgram’s experiment on the power of authority (“Human Behavior Experiments”) but what made professors who have devoted their lives to that of the younger generation turn to shock them for a wrong answer? Fast forward to the nineteen nineties when a mysterious caller posing as a police officer manipulated managers of local fast food restaurants to detain and even sexually abuse teenage customers (“Human Behavior Experiments”) but why would these managers take orders from someone they couldn’t even lay eyes on? The troubling answer may lie within the power of conformity, the absence of responsibility and the danger of dehumanization.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo makes it very clear in his book The Lucifer Effect that the first step to creating evil is dehumanization (Zimbardo). This is the same method the Nazi’s used in the 1930s as they started promoting the Nazi party and painting the Jewish people as the enemies of the human race. Zimbardo calls this creating “dehumanized enemies of the state” and he even goes on to say that “this is a soldier’s most potent weapon” (Zimbardo 312). Nations, such as the Nazi Regime used WWII propaganda to encourage racial division and anti-Semitism. This is the same thing the United States did at this time by depicting the German army as Huns. By doing this, we associate that group of people with something unpleasant or scary making it easier to engage in hostile acts against them, but for those who can see through this manipulation, what makes them go along with it? The answer lies in the power of conformity and the power of obedience to authority. In Haslam and Reicher’s academic journal entitled, “Contesting the “Nature” of conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show”, they point out that a key factor in evil is misguided and immoral obedience and went onto explain the Milgram’s experiment on authority, “appeared to provide compelling evidence that normal well-adjusted men would kill a complete stranger simply because they were ordered to do so by an authority” (Haslam and Reicher 1).

A participant during Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority, flipping the switch to shock a student.

In Stanley Milgram’s study of authority, teachers were sat in front of a box which would be used to administer electric shocks to students on the other side of the wall when they failed to correctly answer a question. Although participants were told they were part of an experiment concerning memory, the experiment was actually an evaluation of the teacher’s reaction to the commands being given; Milgram intended to show that authorities can lead people to engage in great cruelty (Staub 502). Although not all of the participants engaged in shocking the students, 65% of the teachers were willing to participate in shocking the students to the maximum level (Encina). This may be attributed to the fact that Milgram placed the responsibility of the fate of the students on himself and not the teacher. By shifting responsibility, it no longer becomes the teacher’s problem. Another example of the power of authority and the shifting of responsibility can be seen in the case of the mystery caller. In the nineteen-nineties, a prank caller claiming to be a police officer called managers of various fast food restaurants, claiming one of their customers (always being young teenage girls) had stolen from their store. They would then request that the managers detain the customer in question in a back room. All of them detain the customer in question, following instructions step by step from the mystery caller. Not only were these customers falsely imprisoned but the mystery caller instructed managers to strip search and sexually abuse them. (“Human Behavior Experiments”). I found this to be extremely disturbing and I was even more floored when the documentary went onto say that this was not just a one-time occurrence but this in fact, happened over seventy times at multiple different fast food locations throughout the United States (“Human Behavior Experiments”).

So why was the mystery caller so influential and why did the managers of these restaurants willingly participate? The answer again lies in the diffusion of responsibility. Since managers thought they were talking to an officer of the law who had previously explained to them he would be arriving shortly to arrest the customer in question, the responsibility of the customer is no longer the manager’s problem. In fact, they seem to think they are doing this officer a favor by detaining the thief for him. As with the participants in Milgram’s experiment, they were simply doing what they were told to do. Moving forward with the complete absence of compassion and moral direction simply because it wasn’t their problem. This is exactly what happened in the case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman murdered on the street with 37 law-abiding neighbors who stood witness to the crime, yet did nothing (Cook). It could be argued that the reason Kitty’s neighbors didn’t call for help was that they thought surely someone else watching already had and it was no longer their responsibility to act. This can also be seen in reference to the Nazi regime if they were all working under the Nazi state and following orders, how could they be at fault for the atrocities they were carrying out? That at least was the argument of the Nazi doctors during the Nuremberg Trials in 1947 (Spitz). This research stands to answer the question as to why it is so hard for people to stand up or intervene in an emergency situation. If they have no personal stake in the matter, they are less likely to help or in Milgram’s case, more likely to engage in acts of evil. This could also be why the higher the number of witnesses, the lower the amount of assistance given to those in crisis. The more bystanders, the less individual responsibility of each person (“The Bystander Effect the

Antidote: Be a Hero” 3).  In Kitty Genovese’s case one witness even admitted that after debating and contacting neighbors for advice who had told him to call the police, he just didn’t want to get involved (Cook 112).


Although studies on conformity date back to the 1950s when Gestalt scholar and social psychology pioneer Solomon Asch conducted his Asch conformity experiments, (Popova 1) the most obvious and humorous example of conformity comes from a Candid Camera episode from 1962 entitled, “Face the Rear” In this episode of Candid Camera, an actor enters an elevator with a few other riders only the actor faces the back of the elevator. Soon, elevator patrons are looking around, confused and alarmed that the stranger was standing among them facing the back of the elevator. The narrator makes his jokes and observations as one by one, the elevator patrons turn to face the back of the elevator until finally, new riders waiting for the elevator are confused by the fact that everyone was now ‘facing the rear’ when the doors of the elevator opened so that they could get on (“Human Behavior Experiments”). This bizarre phenomenon is probably the most interesting discovery made in my research.

The “Face the Rear” experiment outlines a theory psychologist’s call group-think. Group-think occurs when a group is so concerned with maintaining unanimity that they fail to evaluate all their alternatives and options (“Groupthink”). Although this theory would not be accurate to pair with the Kitty Genovese case, it does, however, explain some of the actions of the Nazi soldiers in WWII. In his analysis of genocide and mass violence, Ervin Staub also discusses the fact that the usual starting points for extreme violence by groups are, difficult conditions of life whether it be economic deterioration, political confusion or great social changes (Staub 502). This fits the Nazi regime like a glove. For many of the German people, the idea of group-think could explain the overwhelming support of the Nazi regime. They were being made to believe that the extermination of the Jews was what was best for the Country as a whole; it didn’t matter that the argument lacked legitimacy. Hitler was believed to be the key to holding their country together and ensuring the German empire would be restored to its previous glory. This indicates that the cohesiveness of the German state was more than a good enough reason for the majority of Germans to actively join the Nazi party, regardless of the actual reality of the situation. Some may have also felt as if they didn’t have any other options, these factors all indicate the points made in accordance to the theory of group-think.


So why don’t we help? According to “The Bystander Effect the Antidote: Be a Hero”, one reason that people don’t help in an emergency situation is due to the fact that “when a situation is unclear we look to others for clues to define what is happening. We then make decisions based, sometimes incorrectly, on other people’s actions, reactions or lack of action. (“The Bystander Effect the Antidote: Be a Hero” 2)” The author also goes on to say that conformity is manageable and takes conscious awareness of the situation and the instinct of those around you. So are the actions of the Nazi regime justifiable under the theory of conformity while also explaining other tragic events throughout history? The answer is no. Although conformity is a common occurrence, this does not mean that it is something that we as individuals cannot fight to undermine. In fact, in the same article, the author urges bystanders to take action and predicts that under the principle of conformity, others will join you, going onto to say that “the power is of one” (“The Bystander Effect the Antidote: Be a Hero” 3). It also points out that by identifying bystanders personally and asking them for help, you hold them responsible for the situation, in turn, bystanders are more likely to help in an emergency situation (“The Bystander Effect the Antidote: Be a Hero” 3). This also answers the question is conformity something that we can change or train our minds to resist? The answer is yes. Being consciously aware of our environment, instincts, resources, and options can prevent us from falling victim to the bystander effect.

Lessons Learned from Studies of Conformity

There are many lessons I have learned from my studies of conformity. The information that I have uncovered while researching this topic have both opened my eyes and changed the way I will react to situations in the future. The fact that we are all responsible to act in an emergency situation holds us all personally responsible to act or intervene. The fear of not knowing what to do is not true evil, but the refusal to act is. All we have to do is speak up, to step in, to intervene; there is no right or wrong way just so long as we act.

The tragic events in history which have now outlined theories and concepts such as the bystander effect, conformity, and group-think, are in no way pardoned by them. We all have a choice and although it may not be the easiest choice to speak up, it is always the right one. The knowledge I have gained will help me fight against violence and the formation of evil as well as given me tools to prevent myself from falling into the trap of conformity like so many people before me. I believe it is important that everyone has access to the research and studies done by social psychologists such as Zimbardo and Milgram because their studies not only help us to outline the problem, but they reassure us that conformity is normal; it is a human instinct. It has also paved the way for solutions and tools to help us to resist the evil that follows the absence of concern and the presence of conformity.

For more information on this subject visit these links:
Candid Camera “Face the Rear” –
The Human Behavior Experiments-
❤ Webster

Works Cited

Cook, Kevin. Kitty Genovese the Murder, the Bystanders and the Crime That Changed America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. Print.

Encina, Gregorio B. “Milgram’s Experiment on Obedience to Authority.” University of California, 15 Nov. 2004. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

“Groupthink.” Oregon State University. Oregon State University, n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Haslam, Alexander S., and Stephen D. Reicher. “Contesting the “Nature” of Conformity: What Milgram and Zimbardo’s Studies Really Show.” PLOS Biology 10.11 (2012). EBSCO. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Gibney, Alex, dir. Human Behavior Experiments. YouTube, 2006. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Popova, Maria. “Elevator Groupthink: A Psychology Experiment in Conformity, 1962.” Brain Pickings., 13 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Staub, Ervin. “Obeying, Joining, Following, Resisting, and Other Processes in the Milgram Studies, and in the Holocaust and other Genocides: Situations, Personality and Bystanders.” Journal and Social Issues 70.3 (2014): 501-14. EBSCO. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.

Spitz, Vivien. Doctors from Hell. Boulder, CO: Sentient Publications, 2005. Print.

“The Bystander Effect the Antidote: Be a Hero.” Psychology Today. N.p., 27 Feb. 2015. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.

Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. New York: Random House Trade, 2007. Print.

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