Beyond the Bystander Effect

20 Jul Beyond the Bystander Effect


Repost from March 5, 2014

Who else thinks they would rush in to help an old man under attack by a pair of violent young women on a Gold Coast bus?

I have my hand up and so do most people I know when I asked them about this story. The blokes in my life think they would step up sooner than the man in the footage of the assault, but hang on. Would they really?

It takes time to judge and assess a crisis situation. It’s easy to have an opinion about what you would do if you were on that bus. The reality is – you probably wouldn’t do anything.

There is one person who has the jump on all the other passengers on the bus trip from hell. A 13 year old girl films the attack and cries for someone to help. While her voice is small, her words are a command. Moments later a man is in action ending the ordeal for everybody. I would be interested to hear what inspired him into action. Dollars to donuts the command of a frightened 13 year old girl was a deciding factor.

I have nothing but compassion for the discomfort of the passengers mentally wrestling with how to deal with the situation. I expect nobody on the bus knew they were smack bang in the middle of the Bystander Effect, a social phenomenon that proves the more people around the less likely it is someone will help.

It’s interesting stuff. Two social psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley were motivated to research human response in a crisis after reading about the 1964 grisly murder of Kitty Genovese. The New York Times reported, “For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

Surely all 38 witnesses weren’t cowards with dark hearts? The psychologists conducted extensive research and social experiments to discover why nobody helped Genovese. Latane and Darley concluded – the probability of action by an individual in an emergency is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders. So, what does that mean? You’re less likely to get help when there are more people around.

We know there are 5  key reasons at play to stop or delay us from stepping up in a crisis:

1. Fear. Real or perceived fear of becoming the target of the attack

2. Relinquished accountability. With so many other people around the less singular responsibility one feels

3. Blame. Bystanders distance themselves from a situation for fear of being associated with it or even mistaken for the cause

4. Embarrassment. Bystanders might doubt their ability to assess a situation. If they rush to the aid of someone who doesn’t need it or want it, they risk the embarrassment of overreacting

5. Social proof. Bystanders in an ambiguous situation consciously and subconsciously look to others, assuming that they have more knowledge or information for how to react. It’s a problem when everyone assumes that others have good information, when in reality no one does.

I am suspending all judgement for anyone that has to put up with intolerable behaviour on public transport. I’m applauding those passengers with the courage to say stop, film, and report assaults without risking their personal safety.

In my self defence workshop for teen girls we talk about the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz. The cowardly lion overcame all kinds of threats and obstacles to get to the Wizard, who “gave” him his courage in the form of a medal. Turns out he already had the courage, he didn’t need a medal.

We all have the courage to be ethical bystanders. The next time a foul mouthed pair of violent girls terrorise a fellow commuter, and sadly there will be a next time, I would love to see a bus load of passengers take a stand – literally. Command an end to unacceptable behavior. Like the cowards they are – they will back down.

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