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The Bystander Effect: Why Some People Act and Others Don’t?

On November 3, 2018, I had the privilege and great pleasure of presenting my first TEDx talk at TEDx Ocala (www.tedxocala.com). I say first because I hope it won’t be my last. In anticipation of my talk being posted for the world to enjoy, I wanted to blog about my topic to give you some context for when you listen to my talk. This will be a 3-part series.               

My journey began in July when I had to submit my “idea worth sharing.” (Check out TED.) I knew I wanted to call people to action. I wanted to inspire and empower people. I wanted to transform minds and souls. I wanted to share something people could relate and aspire to. Share something I had expertise in. Share something I’ve lived not just read about.

That idea is “The Bystander Effect.” Yes, it’s a real thing. It’s an actual social psychological phenomenon.

What is the Bystander Effect?

In its simplest terms, it is the idea that people are less likely to help when other people are present. The more people there are the less likely we are to act. Crowds allow us to hide and be anonymous. If other people are not intervening, bystanders interpret the situation as non-emergent and also don’t intervene. This is called “pluralistic ignorance” or “social proof.”

What is the origin of this phenomenon?

In 1984, John M. Darley and Bibb Latané became interested in the Bystander Effect following the murder of Kitty Genovese. In the early morning hours of March 13, 1964, Kitty Genovese, was on her way home from work. As she walked to her apartment, a stranger, Winston Moseley, who had followed her home, approached Genovese with a hunting knife. Genovese tried running to her door, but Moseley chased her, overtook her and stabbed her twice in her back. Genovese screamed for help, “Oh my God. He stabbed me! Help me!”

Several neighbors heard her cries, but only a few recognized them as a cry for help. One neighbor yelled at Moseley to leave Genovese alone, causing Moseley to run away. Genovese then crawled towards the rear entrance of her building out of the view of witnesses but did not make it inside due to a locked door. Moseley who had driven away, returned 10 minutes later. He searched for Genovese and found her in the back hallway of the building. Moseley then stabbed Genovese several more times and raped her. After stealing her money, Moseley ran away. Genovese was later found by a neighbor. Unfortunately, she died from her wounds.

Original accounts of the incident, reported that 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack but none of them called the police or did anything to help Genovese. [That account has since been called into question.] Nevertheless, at the time of the incident, this story sparked interest and prompted inquiries into what is now known as the “Bystander Effect.”

Bibb and Latané performed experiments involving emergent and non-emergent situations to see how people would react when there was a crowd of people versus when people were alone. Other researchers have also done similar studies and replicated the effect. There was even a television show based on the Bystander Effect – the ABC Primetime Show “What would you Do?” In the show, actors were used to portray (typically non-emergent) situations while the cameras capture the reactions and actions of innocent bystanders. Situations involved things like a child being mistreated, a guy putting something in a woman’s drink, cheating on a test, racism, homophobia, or an elderly person shoplifting.

What researchers and television producers learned is that in emergent and non-emergent situations people were less likely to act when other people were around. Indeed, the more people that were present, the less likely others were to act.

Why do some people act, and others don’t?

Studies show what we choose to do is based on many factors, including:

A. fear: of the unknown, for their personal safety, retribution, judgment, death;

B. ambiguity about the situation or the environment;

C. affinity or cohesiveness: some relationship or connection between the victim and the bystander; and

D. diffusion of responsibility: leaving the responsibility to others to act. This is sometimes based on the thought that others are more qualified to act (e.g., doctors or police officers).

People may also be concerned about legal consequences if they intervene and offer inferior or dangerous assistance. Interestingly, after my TEDx talk, an EMT approached me to express his frustration that people do not intervene because of their fear of legal liability. Some of this stems from a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge regarding Good Samaritan laws. I will discuss these laws in Part 2 of this series.

Being a bystander is not limited to violent situations. The bystander effect is also present in schools, the workplace, and on the internet around issues of discrimination, bullying, workplace violence, and harassment. Bystanders in these situations are also hesitant to act or feel no pressure to act for several reasons: fear of loss of important relationships, retaliation, bad consequences, ostracization, ignorance, and complicity.  

Are you a bystander?

Let’s go back to the television show “What Would You Do?” As the cameras roll, we watch, and wonder: will someone intervene, or will they just whisper under their breath about how awful the situation is? As we sit in the comfort of our homes, we have the time and space to assess the situation; and the knowledge that it is not real.

But what happens when it is real? Do bystanders act differently if they witness events in person or view it live on social media? The evolution of social media has increased our ability to be silent witnesses – modern day bystanders.

We all want to believe that if we see something, we would say something or do something? But would you?

In Part 2, I will explore the cognitive and behavioral processes bystanders go through in deciding whether to intervene. Stay tuned …

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About the author:

Kelly Charles-Collins is a TEDx Speaker, Author, HR Expert and Attorney. From her own personal experiences to her over 20 years as an employment attorney helping organizations uncover hidden truths in their workplaces, Kelly is the Bystander Expert. Kelly shares her expertise in her highly anticipated TEDx talk. Kelly is available for keynotes, training, consulting, and interviews on the Bystander Effect, Unconscious Bias, Diversity & Inclusion, Corporate Culture, and Workplace Investigations. Kelly’s book ACE Your Workplace Investigations: A Step-by-Step Guide for Avoiding Friction, Covering Your Assets, and Earning Employee Trust is available on Amazon. Kelly can be contacted at (770) 476-9865. Please also visit her website at www.kellycharlescollins.comand follow her on social media: LinkedIn: Kelly Charles-Collins, Facebook: KellyCharlesCollins22, Twitter: @HRlawattoney.