The “Bystander Effect” refers to a phenomenon where people are less likely to respond in high danger situations due to the presence of other bystanders.
So, people are more likely to help when alone or when fewer bystanders are present.
Researchers have identified a 5-stage decision making model that is processed by observers before helping another. A bystander must:
- Notice something is wrong;
- Define the situation as an emergency or a situation requiring help;
- Decide whether he or she is personally responsible to act;
- Choose how to help; and finally
- Execute the selected helping behaviour.
Failing to notice, define, decide, choose, and execute leads a bystander not to engage in helping behaviour.
Why does the Bystander Effect occur?
Diffusion of responsibility: Research has shown that in the event of an emergency, when we believe that there are other people around, we are less likely or may be slower to respond to help a victim because we believe someone else will take responsibility.
Therefore, a single observer to an emergency will more often than not conclude that they bear the responsibility to act and in such cases, people do mostly help.
However, bystanders often diffuse responsibility to help when others are present. Diffusion of the responsibility to help increases when others present are identified as more capable, such as doctors or police officers.
Research suggests that in emergency situations where a victim will imminently suffer if help is not offered, bystanders will relieve their personal responsibility to act by asking “experts” (ie firefighters or paramedics) to intervene, thus, indirectly helping.
Pluralistic ignorance: The second reason is the general need to behave in socially acceptable ways. When we see other observers fail to react, we often take this as an indication that a response is not required or is not appropriate.
The ambiguity of the situation may also influence this. Onlookers may wonder what is actually occurring. In these moments of ambiguity, we often look to other bystanders to ascertain what is appropriate. If other bystanders are merely standing around and appear calm, then prospective helpers deduce that perhaps the situation does not constitute an emergency.
Other Variables Affecting the Bystander
How help is asked for matters: In social psychology experiments, when bystanders were asked for their name they more readily provided help. In another condition, when people asked for a dollar and provided an explanation that they had lost their wallet, 72% more assistance was provided in comparison to those who asked for a dollar and provided no explanation.
Similarities: Research shows helping behaviour is increased when there are perceived similarities between the helper and the individual being helped. A 2005 experiment found that bystanders were more likely to help a wounded person if that person was wearing a football jersey for a team the bystander also supported or liked, as opposed to a team the bystander did not like. The relationship between the victim and bystander has shown to considerably impact the extent to which the bystander feels responsible and whether or not they feel the person is deserving of help.
Confusion of responsibility: This occurs when people refrain from helping a victim in the presence of others because they do not want to be perceived as the perpetrator of the victim’s pain and suffering.
Priming: Priming occurs when a person is exposed to certain cues that will influence future decisions and responses. For example, someone who has just been reading a list of furniture items who is later asked to name a five-letter word may identify “chair”. In social situations, just thinking of being in a group could lead to lower helping rates in emergency situations. This is because being in groups is often associated with “being lost in a crowd, loss of individuation, and having a lowered sense of personal accountability”.
Overcoming the Bystander Effect
Simply being aware of this phenomenon is the first step and perhaps most significant way to break the cycle. When faced with a situation that requires action, take a moment to understand how the bystander effect might be affecting your decision to refrain from responding. Don’t expect others to be the first to respond in a crisis.
What if it’s you who needs assistance? Make eye contact and ask a specific individual for help. Personalise your interaction with them and ask for their name. By doing this, you’re making it much harder for bystanders to turn you down.
Author: Tara Pisano, BA (Psych) (Hons), M Psych.
Tara Pisano is a Brisbane psychologist with a special interest in early intervention in adolescents and young adults, as this is when three quarters of mental health conditions emerge. In her practice, she draws on a range of evidence-based therapies such as CBT, DBT, IPT, ACT and Motivational Interviewing, to promote recovery and positive outcomes.
Tara is not currently taking bookings, however, we have a number of clinicians available for bookings. To make an appointment for counselling please visit our webpage here to learn about our highly qualified clinicians, or call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.
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