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John Darley: Biography & Theories

Instructor: Amy Messex

Amy has a master's degree in social work (MSW) and has taught social work theory and practice at the University level.

Get to know the life and work of John Darley, noted American social psychologist. Learn about Darley's shocking research and what it tells us about human nature, particularly about how and when people are willing to help others.

People (Not) Helping People

It's summertime in New York, and it's a beautiful evening. Suddenly the peace is interrupted--someone is screaming for help! Several people hear yelling outside and peer out of their apartment windows. They see a woman being savagely stabbed in full view on the street below. In total, 38 people reportedly witness this horrible attack in progress. So, what happens next--someone tries to save the poor woman and the 911 dispatcher is overloaded with calls? Wrong. Not a single person intervenes, and no one even picks up the phone to call the police.

Sadly, this was a real situation that occurred in 1964, and the victim (Kitty Genovese) died while the crowd just watched it unfold. Why this occurred is one of the big questions that John Darley, noted social psychologist, considered in his research. Let's take a closer look and find out who Darley is and what he can teach us about helping behavior.

John Darley's Career

As a young undergraduate in the 1960's, John M. Darley was already showing great promise. He was awarded a National Merit scholarship and graduated with honors. In 1965, Darley received his PhD in Social Relations from Harvard, and soon afterwards he published his first article on the topic that he is best known for--why people do (and sometimes don't) help other people in emergency situations.

In 1971, Darley accepted a position in the Psychology Department at Princeton University, where he has been teaching ever since. In addition to his important work about helping behavior, Darley has published hundreds of articles on other psychology subjects, all related to the fascinating question of how people influence each other to do things--for example, how (and when) people make excuses for their behavior, how people become motivated to conserve energy, and how morality shapes decisions about justice and revenge.

Darley's career has earned him many accolades and prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and Distinguished Scientific Award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. In 2000, he became president elect of the American Psychological Society. As one of the most prominent scholars in his field, Darley has reviewed articles and served as an editor for many psychology journals (more than two dozen so far). He has also made guest appearances to talk about his work on television shows like the Today Show, 20/20 and Dateline.

John Darley, social psychologist
Photo of John Darley

Now that you've learned a little about Darley's career, let's go back to the fateful night in New York and find out what Darley actually learned about why people do--and sometimes don't--help other people.

The Bystander Effect

John Darley is well-known for his ideas about the bystander effect, and his research on this subject showed that the presence of a crowd actually makes you less likely to take action to help someone in distress. Along with his colleague Bibb Latané, John Darley found that when people are in a large group, there are two powerful forces at work.

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