The Bystander Effect



Recently a friend told me about an incident that happened at a gas station in our small town. She was at the gas pump finishing filling her tank when she saw an elderly man fall. There were several other customers also pumping gas, but no one made a move except my friend. She ran over, helped the man up, and made sure he got safely home – all this despite the fact that she was in a rush, needing to get her young son to school and husband to the station to catch a train.

My friend and I discussed the fact that she was the only person who sprang into action to help a stranger in distress. Her experience reminded me of the Bystander Effect, a well known psychological phenomenon wherein the likelihood that a person will act in an emergency goes down the more bystanders there are witnessing the event.

The Bystander Effect was studied and explained after the horrifying murder of Kitty Genovese on a street in New York in 1964. Genovese was repeatedly stabbed in a prolonged attack that was witnessed by numerous residents from the windows of their apartments. No one acted, and Genovese died.

Scientists explain that the reason people fail to act in such situations is two-fold:

First, individuals in a crowd reason that someone else will probably step forward to help. This was perhaps the reason my friend was the only one to help the elderly man at the gas station.

The second reason people stand by without assisting the victim is that human behavior is strongly influenced by what others around us do. In studies, for example, two people in a room hear a loud crash and cries of distress coming from another room. If one of the people suggests that it’s nothing, the test subject usually does nothing. If, however, the person says he is going to get help and tells the test subject to go see what happened in the other room, the subject usually complies. (Ervin Staub, “Our Power As Active Bystanders,” Psychology Today, Jan. 27, 2012)

I have to wonder whether it was the Bystander Effect that caused deputies at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to refrain from entering the building when they arrived at the scene of the latest horrific mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. Sheriff’s deputies are currently under investigation for failing to act in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. Perhaps these officers reasoned that other police officers or authorities would go in. Of course, the Bystander Effect does not explain the school deputy officer’s failure to act, as he was the only law enforcement official on the scene when the shooting began.

The Bystander Effect has contributed not just to isolated failures of people to act in emergencies. It also explains why acts of genocide have been allowed to take place throughout history. It’s a disturbing trait of group dynamics that whole societies, and even the international community, can look the other way while atrocities are being committed.

Psychologist Ervin Staub believes, however, that people can be trained to act during a crisis and lead others to overcome the Bystander Effect. If even one individual steps forward and starts directing people to help, that action tends to mobilize other individuals, shaking them from their shock, fear and inertia. (Psychology Today, Jan. 27, 2012)

Fighting the Bystander Effect could have a huge impact in our society. School bullying would become a thing of the past if schoolmates consistently came to the aid of their classmates being bullied. Violent actors, if met with determined resistance, might stop harming others with impunity. And the world would be a much more humane place if everyone stepped forward readily to provide aid to a person in need.