The Bystander Effect: What Would You Do?

Last week, I shared with you Part 1 of my 3-part series on the social psychological phenomenon called the “Bystander Effect.” As I mentioned, I had the privilege of sharing my expertise on this topic during my TEDx talk at TEDx Ocala this month. But because that talk is less than 15 minutes, I wanted to give those who are not as familiar with the topic some additional context before listening to my talk.

In Part 1, we learned the origin of the Bystander Effect, what it is, and why some people act, and others don’t. As a short recap, the Bystander Effect originated from the accounts of witnesses not intervening during the murder of Kitty Genovese. After many studies, researchers found that the more people there are, the less likely we are to act or intervene to help someone in need. Factors such as fear, ambiguity, affinity, and diffusion of responsibility play a role in whether a bystander acts.

I ended Part 1 by asking “Are you a bystander?” We all want to believe that if we see something, we would say something or do something.

Raise your hand (don’t cheat) if you have ever seen an incident on television or social media or read about something and said, if I was there, I would have done this or done that or said this or said that. I know I have. My hand is raised high.

But would we say or do something if we saw something?

Researchers not only studied how people reacted when others were around, but their decision-making process about whether to act. They found that bystanders engage in a 5-step cognitive process: (1) notice, (2) interpret, (3) decide, (4) choose, (5) implement.[1]

Notice – This relates to our awareness of situations. When we are in a group, we are less aware of our surroundings. We may be more caught up in the group dynamic rather than forces outside of the group. Thus, when in a group we are less likely to notice someone in need. However, when we are alone, we tend to be more aware of our surroundings and may be more keenly aware of someone in need.

Interpret – Once we notice a situation, we interpret the situation to determine if it requires our intervention. We assess whether it’s an emergency, if the person needs help, and yes sometimes we question whether the person is even deserving of help. Generally, if it’s an emergency, bystanders are more likely to intervene. However, when there is a group of bystanders we often look at others to see how they are responding to determine if we should intervene. If bystanders see that others are not intervening, they interpret the situation as not being an emergency and thus, will not intervene. This is called “pluralistic ignorance” or “social proof.”

Decide –  As bystanders, we sometimes think “it’s not my responsibility” to intervene, especially if no one else is. But as living, breathing, caring human beings, we can also decide that regardless of anyone else’s actions, it is our responsibility to act. You can also decide how and to what extent you intervene. The notion of just resorting to “it’s not my responsibility” should be an anathema to you. There is always something we can do.

Choose – Once a bystander decides it is their responsibility to act, they then choose what form of action to take. One choice is direct intervention. This is very scary to some bystanders. They don’t know what to do or they are worried about what will happen to them if they intervene. But there are many things we can do to intervene that will not cause us personal harm. The other choice is indirect intervention, such are reporting to the authorities.

Implementation: After bystanders decide to act and choose how to act, they must then implement their chosen action. Time to take action.

That all sounds really logical and easy, but in practice it’s not always that way. Bystanders may make it through steps 1 through 4, but then get to implementation and freeze. Why is that? It can be any number of reasons, but one often raised is a fear of legal liability. Bystanders sometimes engage in a weighing process – risk versus reward. Bystanders are more likely to intervene if there is some personal benefit, personal satisfaction, or as a vehicle to avoid guilt.

However, bystanders are also afraid that if they intervene and render inadequate or improper assistance, they may get sued. Nobody wants to be sued for being a “Good Samaritan.” So, what is the truth about so called “Good Samaritan” laws. Here are five things you should know:

1.      They provide some legal protection against unintended consequences when bystanders provide aid to an injured person or someone in danger. However, protections are not unlimited and vary from state to state;

2.      All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some type of “Good Samaritan” law, but who and what is protected varies by jurisdiction;

3.      Medical or emergency personnel may or may not be protected;

4.      Gross negligence or wanton misconduct are not protected; and

5.      When in doubt, being a Good Samaritan could also mean just reporting the injury to the proper authorities and allowing the appropriate professionals to handle the situation.

None of this is easy. We want to help people but sometimes we don’t know what to do or how to do it. For example, I saw a video on Facebook showing this young boy who was having a psychotic episode after smoking a hallucinogenic drug. One bystander was recording the incident as other bystanders looked at him and walked by him and around him, neither rendering assistance nor calling for assistance. However, there were other bystanders who attempted to render assistance. I posted my observations about this video and a friend commented that truthfully, she would not know what to do because she did not know what was happening with the young man.

Have you ever had that feeling? You want to help but don’t know how. It is completely normal for the ambiguity of a situation to cause a bystander some hesitation or uncertainty. And perhaps direct intervention might not be the right decision for every situation. But there’s always indirect intervention.

No matter the situation, we can all do something. We must all do something. Inaction is indifference. Indifference is not an option. We all need to be active bystanders.

There’s a spectrum from “doing nothing” to “doing something.” In part 3, we will explore this spectrum and the power of one: the power of one person taking action. 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.