The bystander effect comes from an experience years ago in New York, the famous Kitty Genovese experience. If a stranger needed help, how long would it take you to offer them a hand? According to psychology, the answer to that question may depend less on who you are as a person and how many people are with you at the time.
In a strange paradox of human nature, the more people there are in a group, the less likely anyone is to offer help. It’s called the bystander effect, and it may be a roadblock that’s keeping you from showing empathy. When someone is in need, people in large groups tend to feel that they don’t need to do anything because someone else will take care of it. This is known as the diffusion of responsibility.
Ever wonder why no one seems to step in when someone is bullied or help someone who is feeling unwell even in a crowd. The answer is the bystander effect. The bystander effect is a strange psychological phenomenon. The more people there are around, and the less likely bystanders are to intervene in an emergency.
What is bystander effect?
The bystander effect is defined as the tendency for individuals to be less likely to help a person in need when bystanders are present or believed to be present. So, in other words, the more people present, the less likely we are to help someone in need. If nobody understands what to do and chooses to ignore the situation rather than act, It is called the bystander effect. An individual is not as likely to help someone in need when there are other people around.
One explanation is that the diffusion of responsibility among multiple bystanders leads each person to believe someone else will step forward and take action. The effect is likely also bolstered by bystanders assuming other people such as doctors or police officers are more qualified to help.
Fearing harm and worrying their intervention will be unneeded or unwanted. Bystanders are more likely to notice a victim than bystanders and groups. It is because when people are together. Social norms dictate that we focus on each other and pay less attention to our surroundings.
Once a bystander does notice the victim, they might look at other people nearby to interpret the situation. If no one else is reacting, the bystander might conform and do nothing. There may be an assumption that the other bystanders know the given situation and are behaving appropriately.
Psychologists suggest that often a victim is less likely to receive assistance when surrounded by a group rather than a single bystander. When people are in a crowd, it’s easier to pass the buck. It’s what psychologists call the diffusion of responsibility.
Many studies have found that when things are ambiguous, people are less likely to jump in, which actually to do anything about it seems reasonable. After all, if it turns out someone is just playing around, it could be embarrassing to be wrong. Research suggests that ambiguous situations can make people fear being judged negatively, stopping them from acting. The good news is that when it’s clear that there is an emergency, the bystander effect doesn’t usually happen.
Diffusion of responsibility: In a situation where help is required, and others are present, other people will or should take responsibility for helping. The problem with this is that the more people present, the more the responsibility is spread or diffused across the whole group. So it means there are many people present no one feels enough responsibility to step in and assist this person.
It illustrates the diffusion of responsibility because no one feels enough responsibility to step in. After all, it’s spread or diffused across many people. So no one feels enough responsibility to do anything about it. Often no one will help when many people are present.
Example of Bystander effect
The most famous example of the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility was an unfortunate event in 1964 in the Queens District of New York City. Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and eight times. Overall the attack lasted 25 minutes, but there were, in fact, three separate attacks. So the killer was scared off twice by Kitty’s screams and struggles. There were about 38 people who watched from their windows. No one intervened, however, and the attacker returned each time to attack her again.
No one called the police during the attack. Eventually, one man phoned the police after the kitty was unfortunately passed away. But he would not leave his name as he did not want to get involved. Now the shocking thing about this particular case is that no one intervened or stepped in. There need to be certain factors that make it more likely that people will genuinely stand and step in and help.
How to overcome Bystander effect?
The bystander effect has been overcome, however. A recent study suggests the bystander effect can prevent ideas, concerns, and opinions from reaching upper management in the workplace. If an employee is secure, information is widely known and discussed among other employees, diffusion of responsibility lowers the chance to tell their manager the info. Researchers call this The Voice bystander effect.
If the bystander deems the situation an emergency and thinks someone should do something, they must contemplate their responsibility. Feelings of obligation and empathy could be increased if the bystander has medical or self-defense training. If they know the victim and if they believe the victim deserves help. The final step is deciding to help either by intervening directly or contacting the authorities.
Good advertisement, ethical movies, and seminars can overcome this effect. We should outreach about humanity and break down the fear of help. Government can take proper steps such as hotline numbers, helping apps and media to make it easy to help people.
Bystander effect experiment
The first major study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1968. In it, two researchers created a similar situation in the lab. They had 72 undergrads come into what they thought was a study on common problems in students’ lives. Each participant was seated alone in a room with an intercom to share their problems with one, two, or five other so-called “participants,” although they were actual recordings.
Then, one of these pre-recorded participants pretended to have a seizure. And the scientists timed how long it took for the undergrad to get help. They found that the more bystanders there were, the longer it took if they got help at all. When they were alone, 85% of participants got assistance. But in the largest group of five bystanders, only 31% did. Admittedly, most people were concerned about the sick person. But they didn’t know if they should do something. So the bystander effect was born.
Since then, multiple studies have confirmed this effect. But they’ve also found it isn’t always as straightforward as it seems. Sometimes, people are more likely to help with bystanders or aren’t affected by their presence. One significant influence on this is the bystanders themselves.
Not surprisingly, people who are in a hurry are typically less likely to stop and help someone. And people who are highly skilled in a specific emergency, like nurses trained to handle medical situations, are also more likely to try to help, whether bystanders are there or not.
More interestingly, though, committing also matters. In a 2015 study in France, a man sat down his bag and asked either one specific person to watch it. In general, everyone watched it, or said nothing, then headed to a nearby ATM. Then, the researchers faked the backpack getting stolen. They repeated trials of this until they had a total of 150 different bystanders, 50 for each scenario. Ultimately, the more direct of a commitment, the more likely people were to intervene when someone took the bag.
Other studies suggest that responses in situations like this have to do with a couple of things. One is social influence. In general, when you aren’t sure what is going on. You probably tend to look at other people for more information. And if no one else seems to be concerned, then maybe this guy’s backpack isn’t a big deal. So you don’t do anything, just like everyone else.
Another factor is the diffusion of responsibility. If something happens when you’re in a big group like some participants in this backpack study, it isn’t up to you to help. Other people could help too. So, you don’t feel as responsible and don’t act, and suddenly that man’s out of a bag. Besides the bystanders, another major factor, in general, is the specific situation. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if someone needs help or not.
A 2011 meta-analysis of more than 50 studies also showed that people are more likely to help bystanders if the situation is dangerous if the perpetrator is still there. And that makes sense. Those situations are an emergency, and it’s safer if other people have your back. Ultimately, although there are some trends, many different social and psychological factors determine whether someone will offer help.
Today, research suggests that your best bet in an emergency is to make it clear that you need assistance and make individuals feel responsible for stepping in. Though, it isn’t that surprising that this effect isn’t straightforward. Humans aren’t exactly clear-cut, so the bystander effect isn’t, either.
Read More: What Is A Boomerang Effect With Causes
Hussain, Insiya; Shu, Rui; Tangirala, Subrahmaniam. “The Voice Bystander Effect: How Information Redundancy Inhibits Employee Voice.” Academy of Management Journal.
Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. “Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.