The Bystander Effect

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The Bystander Effect

Nadia Memari, Editor/Journalist

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“Well somebody’s gonna help her…” the young boy muttered to himself as he redirected his attention to a pebble on the sidewalk, eyes following as it skipped across the busy road by the force of his foot. He had no time to waste on another person and no mental energy to waste on guilt. He had to get to school on time – he was already late. But of course, being the caring person he was, he couldn’t help but to stop and turn back.

A young woman, who seemed oddly familiar to the boy, lie still on the pavement, gasping and groaning as the ground below her grew into a profound shade of red. His eyes met with hers – then retreated. Did she expect him to do something? He had to get to school.

He sunk further into a state of guilt. Then a car’s door opened behind him. Another witness.

“Thank God,” the boy sighed, feeling as if he were given permission to turn his head away from the woman and continue on his way, “he’ll call 911.”

The boy readjusted his backpack and started down the sidewalk.

Thirty minutes later. Thirty-eight bystanders later, just like the boy, who all shared one thing in common – the same false prediction. Of course, somebody called 911. An ambulance will be here soon. They knew someone would save her in time.

One dead body later.

Kitty Genovese was murdered outside of her apartment. And, it could be argued, her death was all (or at the very least partly) due to the bystander effect.

What is the bystander effect?

The story above is , in part, true – Only it was heavily exaggerated by the media. There were much fewer witnesses, and many of them who overheard the incident didn’t actually see the dying woman. Nonetheless, this moment is what led to the discovery of one of the most well-known sociological phenomena.

The bystander effect refers to a situation when the presence of other people discourages one from helping victims in emergency situations; the more people present, the more discouraged one feels. In a famous study, researchers found that when participants were by themselves, 75 percent assisted a person in need. When a group of six people were gathered, only 31 percent helped. Research suggests this is due to multiple factors, including a fear of mistakes or embarrassment in front of others, pluralistic ignorance, and diffusion of responsibility. Because of pluralistic ignorance, people may look to others for information on what should be done and how they should react, mimicking their behavior. With the diffusion of responsibility, the burden of helping is shared with others. Hence, people are less likely to feel a sense of responsibility in the presence of more people, and they assume that someone else will take action instead.

How do you overcome the bystander effect?

There are numerous factors that contribute to the reduction of the bystander effect. For example, if witnesses have a personal relationship with the victim, chances are, they would take initiative to provide aid. However, even without a personal connection, you can easily increase your chances of getting assistance and cultivating a more personalized response in a witness with a few simple steps: 1) single one individual out from the crowd, 2) make eye contact and small talk, 3) directly ask for help. You’d be better off doing this than making a general plea to the group.

Seeing an individual as more deserving of assistance will increase one’s chances of intervening, as well. A sexist person is less likely to help another person in need if he or she is the opposite gender. In one classic experiment, many participants agreed to give money to a stranger if they believed that the person’s wallet had been stolen, while less did when they believed the person had simply spent all his money. This could be the reason behind why some individuals donate to the homeless, while others refuse to. Those who believe that the homeless are in their position because of laziness and unwillingness to work are less likely to give any money. Therefore, if a bystander sees you as more worthy of help, your chances of being assisted are higher.

Feeling good? Well that’s great news – not just for you, but for others too! Researchers have found that when you feel good about yourself, you are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors. People who feel happy or accomplished are more likely to provide assistance, and even small events can trigger those feelings. Perhaps you heard your favorite song on the radio, maybe you completed a difficult level in Mario, or maybe your friend told you a funny joke – although small, it can leave you feeling happy and competent, influencing your decision to help another person in need. This is commonly referred to as the “feel good, do good” effect.

When you are a witness in an emergency situation, observance is key. Sometimes, people don’t notice what’s happening until it’s already happened, and by then it might be too late. In another well-known experiment, participants were less likely to react when smoke started to fill a room when the other people in the room didn’t react either. Since no one else was doing anything about the situation, participants assumed that there wasn’t an emergency – In a real situation, this could have resulted in significant consequences. Instead of solely depending on the responses of those around you, staying alert and attuned to the situation can help you react appropriately and in a timely manner.

Being a victim yourself might motivate you to help others who are in the place you once were. This is especially true if the perpetrator was caught and punished as a result.

And, believe it or not, witnessing others’ good deeds might influence your decision as well. It motivates us to do the same. Perhaps after hearing a friend has donated to a charity, you feel inspired to donate, as well.

So, if you ever find yourself in an emergency situation where a woman is bleeding profusely, don’t turn to the man next to you and expect him to save her. After all, he might just be expecting the same thing from you.