The bystander effect (also known as bystander apathy) is a social psychological phenomenon in which witnesses do not offer help to a victim when in the presence of others. In fact, studies show that the more people present the less likely a victim is to receive assistance in an emergency.
The Bystander Effect
The concept of the bystander effect was first coined after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. You may have heard the story of Kitty Genovese, but for those who haven’t, I’ll briefly explain. Genovese was a 34-year-old New York woman who was stabbed to death outside her Queens apartment on March 13th, 1964. What was shocking about this attack, besides it occurring in broad daylight, was that headlines in the weeks following claimed that numerous people (37 or 38, depending on the source) witnessed the attack without intervening or calling the police. An article in the New York Times (that has since been retracted) claimed that when questioned, many of these witnesses showed indifference or stated that they “assumed the police had already been contacted”.
While the first of its kind to make international headlines, the bystander effect is more common than one would think.
The ABC hit series “What Would You Do?” is built around the bystander effect. Scenarios that are considered morally wrong are played out while hidden cameras capture the reactions of bystanders. Although there are people do step in during these situations, the number of people who don’t is always surprising.
Bystander Effect in Everyday Life
The bystander effect is a common, everyday occurrence in the schoolyard. Bullying is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action. All too often children at school are bullied while others stand by and watch.
Studies into the actions of youth as bystanders show that social relationships play a big role in whether or not a youth will intervene when they see a peer being bullied. Gender, moral reasoning and physical ability are considerations that are also stated in research.
It is not only children who are subject to the bystander effect, however. Grown adults deal with the same pressures when they are witnessing an event they see as wrong and much of the time they choose to simply ‘stay out of it’ and ‘mind their own business’ – sometimes at a great cost.
If study after study shows that the bystander effect holds true, what can we do?
The good news is, knowledge is power. Combatting the bystander effect begins with knowing what it is, and what to do if you witness to an emergency situation.
Darley and Latane, the researchers who coined the term Bystander Effect, have outlined the steps involved in combatting the phenomena. Each of these steps needs to be acknowledged and answered in order to move on to the next.
The 5 Steps to Helping in an Emergency
Step 1: Notice the event – before you can do anything as a bystander you must notice something is wrong. While some situations will be clearly perceived as an emergency, others may not be so obvious. For some, a person lying on the ground is a reason to react, for others, this may be perceived differently. For many, noticing an event is the first problem, especially in a media-centered society where we all seem to have our faces in our phones. Take time to look around you. If you notice something strange and are unsure check to see what others are doing. If they are also suspicious of the event chances are something is wrong. With that said, social cues should not be the only thing you rely on to tell you that something is not right, follow your gut and if in doubt, ask.
Step 2: Interpret the need for help – Indicators, such as screaming or blood are obvious signs that intervention is needed, but look for other signs as well. Pay attention to body language, facial cues, etc and look for indicators of fear. Go with your gut. If something feels wrong to you, it probably is. Best to be safe, rather than sorry. It is always better to act as if it is an emergency and look like a fool than to do nothing and feel like one. Do NOT assume that someone else will help. This diffusion of responsibility could cost someone their life.
Step3: Take personal responsibility – Noticing that there is an emergency is not enough. This is especially true when there are many other witnesses present. This is where diffusion of responsibility comes in. You may think someone has already called 911, but don’t assume anything. You must decide whether or not to act on the situation and take personal responsibility for helping the victim, regardless of the actions of others.
Step 4: Decide how to help – Do not let a lack of confidence be a barrier to helping. Perhaps you do not have the medical training required to fully address the situation, but the intervention of any kind is better than none. Simply calling 9-1-1 can make a world of difference. Once you have noticed the emergency, decide to help, and do so immediately in any way you can.
Step 5: Provide help – Once you have figured out that help required and decided how you can provide it, attract others to help as well. Look around you and directly give orders to others who are present. For example, point to other bystanders and give them specific tasks such as “you call 911”, “you get a towel”, “you find ice”, etc. By giving direct orders to others you bring them into the situation and make them feel personally responsible as well.
This same concept applies if you find yourself in an emergency situation. Do not assume others will help, instead, single them out. Rather than screaming “help me” look directly at a bystander and tell them how to help.
Knowing the concepts of the bystander effect and the steps involved in that concept is the best way to combat the phenomena. You may think that you would know someone needed help or that you would step up and confront an individual who was doing something wrong, but psychological studies have proven otherwise many times. A quick search on YouTube reveals numerous videos of this phenomena in action.
It is important to always be aware of your surroundings and not be afraid to look like a fool. It is far better to look foolish then to hear about something horrific later that you could have prevented. The saying “better safe than sorry” truly applies here.
Until Next Time,
Don’t be a bystander.
Have you ever witnessed the bystander effect?
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