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Bystander  Effect

The 'bystander effect' is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer any assistance to a victim in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help has in the past been thought to be inversely related to the number of bystanders; in other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. The mere presence of other bystanders greatly decreases intervention. This happens because as the number of bystanders increases, any given bystander is less likely to notice the incident, less likely to interpret the incident as a problem, and less likely to assume responsibility for taking action.

There are many reasons why bystanders in groups fail to act in emergency situations, but social psychologists have focused most of their attention on two major factors. According to a basic principle of social influence, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think it is necessary to intervene. Each person uses others' behaviour as clues to reality. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (nothing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance or social proof. The other major obstacle to intervention is known as 'diffusion of responsibility'. This occurs when observers all assume that someone else will assist, so each individual feels less responsible and refrains from doing anything.

There are other reasons why people may not help. They may assume that other bystanders are more qualified to help, such as doctors or police officers, and that their intervention would be unneeded. People may also experience evaluation apprehension and fear losing face in front of the other bystanders, such as being superseded by a superior helper or rejected by the victim, or facing the legal consequences of offering inferior and possibly dangerous assistance.

Children can be bystanders too. A study came up with seven reasons why children do not help when another classmate is in distress. These include: trivialisation, dissociation, embarrassment association, busy working priority, compliance with a competitive norm, audience modelling, and responsibility transfer (Robert Thornberg, 'A classmate in distress: schoolchildren as bystanders and their reasons for how they act', 2007, Social Psychology of Education, (10), 1, 5-28).

A study published by the International Ombudsman Association suggests there many reasons why people do not act on the spot or come forward in the workplace when they see behaviour they consider unacceptable (Mary Rowe; Linda Wilcox; Howard Gadlin, 'Dealing with - or Reporting - "Unacceptable" behaviour (with additional thoughts about the "Bystander Effect")', 2009, Journal of the International Ombudsman Association 2 (1): 52-64). The most important reasons cited for not acting were: the fear of loss of important relationships in and out of the workplace, and a fear of "bad consequences".

There are many reasons given by people who do act on the spot or contact authorities. The Ombudsman's study suggests the bystander effect can be seen in a broader fashion. The broader interpretation includes not just what bystanders do in emergencies, but also their reactions to unacceptable behaviour by others in public, in the workplace and at home. This study suggests that what bystanders will do in real situations are complex, reflecting the context of a situation and the personal experiences and values of bystanders.

Many of the above reasons for failing to act are rooted in fear, by people who think "What will happen to me if I stop to help the victim?" Rather we need to think "What will happen to the victim if I fail to help?" You may not want to get directly involved due to a threat to yourself or your loved ones (as in the case of an armed robbery or a car crushed by a high voltage power line pole), so call authorities and let them deal with the situation. Doing nothing harms you and your society.

Nations must introduce laws that protect Good Samaritans, socially validate said behaviour by recognizing and praising such actions with public awards, and teach children that citizens have a duty, implicit in the social contract, to help their fellow citizens in a life threatening emergency (when safe to do so). Most important is the need for public policies that promote social cohesion and compassionate attitudes.

Overcoming  Bystander  Effect


Overcoming the bystander effect is as simple as taking direct action and telling specific people to assist with first aid or contact authorities. Prepare yourself for an emergency by obtaining the practical means with which to do so (first aid training / emergency kit). Competence and preparedness produce confidence. If you are unsure about a situation monitor it from a distance and take action if it becomes necessary (direct intervention or simply call authorities).

It should be remembered that Good Samaritan laws generally limit liability in relation to the provision of medical assistance, not non-medical assistance such as extraction from a car unless an imminent danger makes this necessary. Never attempt to move somebody who might have spinal injuries or broken bones unless there is an imminent threat, as in the case of an injured person in a crashed car that has caught fire and cannot be readily extinguished (cars rarely catch fire). So only do what is necessary to protect life.

First Aid Training

Undergo first aid training, ideally a first aid certificate course at the Red Cross or Red Crescent (see Resources page for more information).

Emergency Kit

A first aid kit, rescue tool, small flashlight, map and GPS equipped mobile phone (see Resources page for more information).

Edmund Burke

"Nobody made a greater
 mistake than he who did
 nothing because he could
 only do a little."

- Edmund Burke

"Success has nothing to do
 with what you gain in life or
 accomplish for yourself. It's
 what you do for others."

- Danny Thomas

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