Beating The Bystander Effect

When there is an emergency, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that any of them will actually help.   This is a phenomenon called Bystander Effect.  Pluralistic ignorance is where they assume nothing is wrong because nobody else looks concerned.

The Psychological definition reads as follows:   The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders.


I wanted to post about this issue as we discuss it in CWP classes when we go over ways to be a Good Samaritan.  Yesterday, I experienced a situation where no one stepped in and I decided to go ahead and put it out here to get you thinking and working to be better than one of the crowd.

I was in a local Chick-fil-A restaurant at lunch time that was extremely busy with families and children.  I was sitting between the counter and the door, facing the play area.  A little girl around 2-3 was standing in the middle of the room looking around confused and crying.  She started asking for her “mama” and getting more upset.  I glanced around to see if her mom was near or looking and saw a room full of people just staring at her and doing nothing.  She could have easily been snatched up and taken out that door.  I jumped up and scooped her up and asked if she was lost.  She said yes so I told her we would find her mom and to point her out to me when she saw her.  She was barefooted so I assumed she had been in the play area.  We walked in and we immediately ran into mom who was looking for her.  She slipped right past her at the play place and was lost in the crowd just that quickly.  When I sat back down I just reviewed the crowd and could not get over how all these adults just stood or sat there and kept away from her as if it was not their problem.

The crowd responds as if “someone else will do something so I won’t”.  There are reasons people in a crowd respond this way and it can be overcome.   Bystanders go through a five-step process, during each of which they can decide to do nothing.

1: Notice the event (or in a hurry and not notice).
2: Realize the emergency (or assume that as others are not acting, it is not an emergency).
3: Assume responsibility (or assume that others will do this).
4: Know what to do (or not)
5: Act (or worry about danger, legislation, embarrassment, etc.)

This is different than situational paralysis as this is not a personal response to something that has placed you in fear or sudden shock, such as seeing a spider.  This is a failure to react that, if alone, may not have happened.  The influence of the crowd causes the overwhelming shut down of willingness to help and causes diffusion of responsibility.

If you have ever seen the show What Would You Do? then you have seen people fail to respond or assist others in need of help.  I personally stopped watching that show when they showed a street full of adults, in separate opportunities, allow a child to be kidnapped right in front of them.  One man went as far as to move over to get out of the way of the man dragging the little girl off the street.  Only after two college students rushed in to help, was she assisted in any way by anyone on a busy street.  I could no longer handle the stresses of watching people fail to protect others when able and tuned-out of that series forever.  See if your nerves can handle this video.    What Would You Do?

A famous case of Bystander Effect was in 1964, where Kitty Genovese was attacked and brutally stabbed to death over a 45 minute period in the presence of a crowd of 38 people who did nothing to help during the attack.  In 2015, the movie Witness depicted her murder.   The study of this case began the label of Bystander Effect, also referred to as the “Genovese Effect”.


The failure to respond was caused partially by social proof, whereby when people are uncertain, they look to other people as to what to do.  It can also be caused by people losing themselves in the crowd and assuming a smaller share of the responsibility, expecting others to help instead of themselves intervening.

In South Carolina, we have a law referred to as Alter Ego.  We are allowed to step in and defend the life or safety of another person who would have been able to have defended themselves the same way, if able.  We are allowed to equally use lethal force if it is necessary in a justifiable situation.  You know you can do this, but will you?

While attending advanced psychological studies, we did research on this as well as other response behaviors.  One of the ways to better learn the behavior was to learn how to “snap out of it”.  Military, law enforcement and other training groups also stress tactics to move past this behavior as well as situational paralysis.  One group I worked with used “Key Words”.  If you ever felt yourself freezing or not reacting, you would call yourself out by using your personal  Key Word or phrase you learned to snap you out and get moving.  It takes practice and repetition for this to be successful.

If you are failing to respond because you are not sure, think!  If you want someone to do something, ask them specifically by name or make sure they cannot assume that somebody else will do it.  Make eye-contact and make your voice heard.  You can also set an example and ask for alliance.  When you start acting, others will act.

If you think someone else should be doing what you have been asked to do, question the motives of the person asking you (even ask why they are not doing it themselves).  Many people stand around expecting others to respond and when questioned, they will either respond or give you the clarification you need to know what to do, even from their inaction.

Do Something!

In 2008, I drove passed a crowd of people at a busy park.  I noticed a man lying on the ground so I turned and went back.  There must have been 20 people standing around asking each other what was going on.  I immediately asked the crowd what they saw, rolled the man over, noticed he was not responding and started CPR.  I also firmly asked for a woman to call 911.  That was when the first call was made.  The CPR went on for more than 10 minutes, until first responders arrived.  When I began CPR, suddenly two others decided to assist me.  I remember hearing a woman say she would have helped if she had not let her “CPR certification expire”.  I cannot tell you how furious I was when I finally was able to get off the ground and face her.  I kept quiet as the response would not have been pleasant.  I remember discussing the event with an officer who asked for details.  One witness stated I arrived a few minutes after he collapsed.  So what were you all doing before I got there?  It took one person doing something to get a few more to get involved.

You do not have to assist anyone in any way if you do not feel motivated to do so.  As a part of a community that should look out for each other, we would ask you at least call 911.  In almost all of the Bystander Effect cases documented and studied today, nothing was done, not even a plea for help or call to police.  Don’t be that sheep, step up and make it happen.  Be their Alter Ego.

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