Home > Crime, Morality & Ethics, News, Psychology, Social Issues > Another victim of the bystander effect

Another victim of the bystander effect

Social Psychology by psychologists Elliot Aronson and Timothy Wilson describes the bystander effect as “a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional 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.”

I recall a family trip to Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey when a rather menacing looking man verbally threatened a park employee with physical harm because the employee observed his family attempting to cut in line. Never mind that nobody except yours truly at 11 years old bothered to even say anything about said attempt – nobody wanted to get involved when the man started hurling expletives and making threats that put Serena Williams’ U.S. Open outburst to shame.

The worst part was that when security arrived to deal with the situation, the man denied all wrongdoing and nobody said anything! I finally took it upon myself to speak up about what happened, and security escorted the man out of the park.

While some may choose to call me a squealer, I think I did the right thing by getting a prick like that out of the park, showing him that there actually were consequences to his behavior and showing the park employee that he could do the right thing by the other park patrons without having to fear that he would get physically assaulted by morons who don’t think that the rules apply to them.

Plus, I got to a pass for the whole family to jump to the head of the line for any one ride I chose (which helped a lot since it was an unbearably hot day and the line for one of the splash rides was incredibly long) so I was rewarded with more than just the satisfaction of having done the right thing.

On a more grave note, a 15-year-old California high school student was a recent victim of the bystander effect on Saturday when she was gang raped outside of her school while the annual homecoming dance was going on inside. Investigators stated that as many as 15 male individuals gathered to observe the crime without notifying the police or trying to help the victim, with some eventually participating in the act. The victim was left unconscious in critical condition under a bench.

Now, I don’t doubt the legitimacy of such a psychological phenomenon as the bystander effect, but I think it is only responsible to qualify that individuals have to have a certain mental or moral weakness in order to be swept up in such an effect. If your parents raised you to have a strong moral backbone, you would immediately recognize a rape for what it was no matter how many people were standing around gawking or even cheering, and you would know to do the right thing either by intervening or contacting the authorities.

Some people may try to claim that the individuals in question were possibly scared of what the perpetrator(s) would do, but that claim is rendered null and void by the simple fact that any of those individuals could have easily removed themselves from the scene and contacted the police to handle the situation – they did not need to physically rescue the victim in order to help the situation. Instead, these individuals chose to watch the proceedings like some sick voyeurs watching a twisted rape fetish porno.

One has to wonder how we as human beings have become so apathetic that we can just stand around when someone is in need of help right in front of us and justify to ourselves that we don’t need to intervene or help because “someone else will” even when we are in no real danger ourselves.

Thankfully, the victim is now in stable conditions thanks to the efforts of the Richmond police and the staff at the area hospital to which she was flown… and no thanks to the worthless, spineless individuals who decided that it wasn’t their responsibility to do what was right and stop the rapists.

Source: CNN

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  1. adiblogger
    October 27, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    congrats! I think you can be proud of what you did. IMHO the fact, that there is now a scientifically prooved effect may cause even more bystanders -like ‘its not my fault; thats an effect’
    you are also right that it is the job of us parents to grow the youngsters in a way, that they are acters and not bystanders.

    • October 27, 2009 at 8:19 pm

      Hi adiblogger,

      Thanks for your support! I also think I did the right thing (or else I wouldn’t be sharing my story 😉 and I can only hope that others would step up and act similarly when the situation arises instead of succumbing to apathy.

      My sons are currently not old enough to understand any of these concepts but I will certainly raise them to know to do the right thing (and be smart about it).

      Thanks for your response! Your reward is the distinct honor of being the first non-spam response to my entire blog! Don’t you feel honored? 😉

      Cheers!

      -Nathaniel

      • October 27, 2009 at 10:11 pm

        This is a GREAT blog entry, I agree FULLY with what you are saying here.

        I’ve also been a “bystander”, but the times that I’ve been prone to this effect are usually not as bad as you mentioned.

        I’ve intervened some fights, but i’m very small (physically) and sometimes end up getting injured.

        When I read: “Yours truly at 11yrs old” I thought you were 11!!

        I was SHOCKED at the quality of this blog entry…. (especially for an ELEVEN year old)

        Haha! I must’ve been confused somewhere.

        First Non-Spam response?!
        Whoa! I think you deserve MUCH more. I actually found you on the “Freshly Pressed” page on WP! 🙂

      • October 27, 2009 at 10:20 pm

        Hi Allen,

        I thank you for your support and kind words. I’m really just voicing my opinion and am surprised that so many people (hey, a dozen responses is a big deal for someone just starting on with the whole blogging thing ;-)) took the time to respond.

        It’s good that you’ve tried to intervene in fights, but like I said it’s not always necessary to get involved in that manner. You could also rally others in the group to try to do something about it or simply just find help either from police or other people.

        You’re not the first person to misinterpret my age (or perhaps to point out my miscommunication of my age depending on how you look at it ;-)). I was 11 at one point in my life but those days are far behind me, haha.

        Regarding finding me on “Freshly Pressed,” I only found out myself moments ago when I checked my e-mail account. I was pleasantly surprised (hey, I’ll take any help I can get in getting my blog to potential readers) and am still wondering how a blog post qualifies.

        Thanks for your response! It really means a lot to me anytime someone takes the time to open a discourse about topics I feel passionately about.

        Cheers!

        -Nathaniel

  2. October 27, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Hi,
    Pardon I did not see your name or I would address you more correctly. I read your article about the Bystander Effect and it is worth noting that when I started my studies in Psychology we studied reasons for the Bystander effect and I have shared the reasons during my programs on stress management to help people deal with challenging situations.

    Within the research on the Bystander Effect researchers have found one of the most powerful reasons was called ‘Diffusion of Responsibility’. This is the belief that even if people are watching a terrible event (as you described) they think someone else is going to call the police or get help. The more people that are present the more responsibility is diffused and help is often never called for.

    The solution from research is that if you are being attached or if you see someone being attacked you need to ask for help directly so the person you ask cannot diffuse the responsibility. Statements like ‘ you in the red coat please help me’ or you in the red coat call the police’ point out a person and a requested action. Maybe this is not always possible in the heat of a moment especially if you are the person in the middle of the situation. But if you are watching the event and you ask others to take action and you take action as well you can get people thinking consciously again and perhaps save a life.

    I trust this information is of value.

    David Hennessey, B.A. (Psych.) W.C.
    Developer of The W.O.N.D.E.R. Technique ® educational program

    • October 27, 2009 at 8:17 pm

      Hello Mr. Hennessey,

      Thanks for your response!

      I wrote some paragraphs about Diffusion of Responsibility in my post but ultimately decided that the post didn’t flow quite as well with this content included.

      Two commonly referenced examples of this effect are Nazi concentration camp guards claiming that they were just “following orders” when they committed atrocities against their Jewish prisoners and drivers not calling 9-1-1 for someone whose car broke down in the rain because “someone else will eventually make the call.”

      These two examples show that the “group” referenced by the definitions of these “group effects” do not necessarily have to be a bunch of people standing all around you – they can be other members of a hierarchy or even other drivers on the road.

      I think your suggestion of directly communicating with a specific person by pointing out one of their characteristics can be a particularly useful piece of advice that, like you said, might possibly save someone’s life in the future.

      Cheers!

      -Nathaniel

  3. October 27, 2009 at 8:13 pm

    “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. Sad and true.

    TrueMan
    ManAmongBoys.com

    • October 27, 2009 at 8:56 pm

      Love the quote! It’s easy to think that someone else will step up and do something but what if everyone thought that way?

  4. October 27, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    very very goods

    Thank you

  5. October 27, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    That’s an awful concept although sadly does have logic.
    Interesting read.

    • October 27, 2009 at 10:06 pm

      It’s sadly a very real psychological effect in group settings. Too many people are willing to just be “part of the herd” – action requires that somebody actually *gasp* think for themselves.

  6. Pretty Project
    October 27, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    OMG! How terrible that that happened. I’m glad people like you remind us to be “helpful” to our fellow mankind.

    http://www.theprettyproject.com

    • October 27, 2009 at 10:07 pm

      Unfortunately, too many people are willing to turn the other cheek in the hopes that somebody else will step up and take action against these types of behavior. It’s easier to be apathetic.

  7. quagmires
    October 27, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    Great article! This story is similar to murder case that happened in my area. A shooting occured near my apartment in plain-sight. There were plenty of witnesses at the scene of the crime but not one of them reported the perpetrator to the police. Many said that they were afraid that the “shooter” will find out. That is insane as they are many services (CrimeStoppers) that let you report anonymously. I think it’s obvious that the witnesses felt that it would be “snitching” if they told. Are you really 11 years old? Great blog!

    ——
    Blog: quagmires.wordpress.com – Vortex
    Twitter: twitter.com/quagmires

    • October 27, 2009 at 10:13 pm

      Haha – I wish I was still 11 years old. That was a family trip I took a long time ago.

      In all seriousness, though, it’s a shame that more people aren’t willing to step up to the plate and help their fellow human being. To be fair, though, I can understand the fear people would have if the crime in question was a shooting. Really, though, they could, like you said, make an anonymous call to the tip line and even do it from a pay phone so there’s no connection to you.

      Those witnesses that didn’t want to snitch on a criminal, however, should be smacked upside the head for their tremendous stupidity. It’s really sad that people could be raised in such an environment where they actually feel there’s some sort of code of honor they have to follow that allows murderers, rapists and thieves to get away with horrendous acts against others.

      It’s of the utmost importance that parents take the responsibility to teach their children morals and ethics so we can improve our society although it would be irresponsible of me to claim that this is an easy task for every parent in every situation.

  8. October 27, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Guilty! How many times have I witnessed dangerous drivers, wanted to do something, but didn’t? I just recently learned that you can, indeed, call 911 to report a dangerous driver.

    We need to know these things. Your article is a wake up call. Thanks so much.

    • October 27, 2009 at 10:25 pm

      Hi Ms. Mathews,

      Let me first say that I love the title of your book! It makes for a great website URL, too. 😉

      I appreciate your response. I agree that people need to consider the importance of taking a stand against criminals and people who choose to endanger the lives or well-being of others.

      Of course, I’m sure the reason you didn’t report a dangerous driver because you yourself didn’t want to make a cell phone call while driving. 🙂

      In all seriousness, though, it’s very important for people to at least make the effort to report these kinds of behaviors. It’s very possible that nothing will come of your call but you can at least feel satisfaction in knowing that you tried to do something about it. The mentality that “one person can’t make a difference so they shouldn’t bother” is one that goes hand-in-hand with the Bystander Effect and Diffusion of Responsibility.

      Anyone can make a difference – just reporting a crime, regardless of the outcome, is making a difference.

      Cheers!

      -Nathaniel

  9. October 27, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    Thank you for reporting about this important story. I’ve heard about the bystander effect before and it basically means nothing to me. I feel that anyone who witnessed something like this and did nothing to stop it should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Period.

    • October 28, 2009 at 2:50 pm

      While I understand and agree with your sentiment, I don’t think that witnesses should be prosecuted as criminals for not intervening in a crime in progress. I believe some states have laws by which someone who didn’t report a crime to the police can be fined a small amount, but no state would prosecute apathy as a crime because there are too many other factors involved.

  10. October 27, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Wow, what an interest blog and post! I really like the chivalry one because I agree with it 100%. Sometimes I feel like writing about the things I am opinionated on, just to get replies from people that disagree, so I can see both sides of a story.

    Just so you know, this post is on the wordpress.com homepage, so that is probably why you have so many views. A word of advice: when you write a post, after the introduction paragraph use the ‘more’ button so only a preview shows up on your homepage, making it much shorter and neater. I plan on coming back to this blog every once in a while because it’s quite interesting.

    Best of luck,
    Kevin

    • October 28, 2009 at 2:53 pm

      Hi Kevin,

      I love hearing other perspectives, although honestly that’s mainly because I like debating, even to the point where I’ll sometimes play the devil’s advocate on a viewpoint I actually agree with. Healthy, open discourse keeps you sharp and keeps you informed.

      I noticed that my post appeared on the “Freshly Pressed” section of the WordPress site. The system also sent me an e-mail message to let me know this. I thought that was pretty cool – it certainly encourages me to post more often so I have a better chance of getting back into that lineup.

      Thanks for your support!

      -Nathaniel

  11. October 28, 2009 at 4:14 am

    This is a great post. It made me much more aware of apathy while out and around my city today. I do wonder, like you do, if we as a a humanity have become so apathetic that we can’t fathom helping others. I also wonder if this is a result of the fact that many live in relative isolation. Sure there are people all around but how much of a connection does one human really have to the next? Take away ties and people become desensitized and adverse to interaction, even if it means helping. I’m just speculating but I just wanted to put in my two cents and thank you for giving me something to think about today.

    http://giveitasecondlook.wordpress.com

    • October 28, 2009 at 3:40 pm

      Hi there!

      Unfortunately, apathy is a growing problem, at least in my city of New York. People often seem to be so eager to just block out the world and get to where they’re going as fast as they can that they won’t even give a second’s thought to helping someone in need. Even such civilities as thanking a person for holding a door for you or helping someone pick up the things they dropped on the sidewalk are lost on many people these days.

      I often wonder if it’s the general personality of the city itself. It’s big business here, and everything moves so fast that at times it must seem to many people that you have to go at mach speed just to get through the day. I choose instead to move at a more leisurely pace, to always keep work apart from everything else and always remember that ultimately it’s just a job and shouldn’t command your life. I like to take the time to smell the roses, so to speak. It helps keep me a generally cheerful, laid back soul.

  12. Petru Burac
    October 28, 2009 at 4:22 am

    Hello. Until this article I had an ideea of this “bystander effect” that it is possible just in my country – Romania. But it clears the thoughts when I see you have to fight with it also in USA.
    This article is great and your standing for the truth is encouraging.
    God bless you.

    • October 28, 2009 at 3:43 pm

      I think anyone without any really strong moral code (regardless of what those exact morals may be) could fall victim to this effect. Many people simply aren’t inclined to have strong enough convictions about what they consider right and wrong as well as what their responsibility to do something is.

      Thanks for your support!

  13. blackenedgreen
    October 28, 2009 at 6:11 am

    I wonder if I can translate this article in to Indonesian language, I feel that I have to, credit will be given where credit is due, and I’ll provide the link to the original one (this article) I’ll only do it with your permission. Please…

    Cheers!

    • October 28, 2009 at 3:46 pm

      It’s all good, buddy! I’m honored that you think my opinion is worth taking the time to translate into another language and shared with other people. If you feel like it, share some reactions from the people you show my article to – I’d be interested in hearing what they have to say. Thanks for your support!

      -Nathaniel

      • blackenedgreen
        October 29, 2009 at 2:03 pm

        Thanks Nathaniel, I’ll work on it right away. And sure, I’ll share any meaningful responds from Indonesian reader, I hope there will be enough responds though, Indonesian readers are quite different when it comes to the materials that they read (been doing some small research on it). Thanks again.

      • blackenedgreen
        October 30, 2009 at 6:46 am

        here’s the link to the translated version: http://ijoitem.wordpress.com/2009/10/30/bystander-effect-bagaimana-kita-bersikap-acuh-tak-acuh-terhadap-kejadian-yang-ada-di-hadapan-kita/

        I modified the title anticipating the fact that the term “bystander effect” is not generally popular around here. We’ll see what happened, whether it would produce responds similar to the English readers.

        Cheers!

  14. Jia Jia
    October 28, 2009 at 8:24 am

    Hi there,
    🙂 I learnt something new here 🙂 Thanks for that.
    Like your blog 🙂

    Take care,
    Jia

    • October 28, 2009 at 3:47 pm

      Hi Jia! Thanks for your support! I’m glad you enjoyed my post. I strive to learn something new everyday and am happy anytime I can be involved when someone else does, too. Cheers! -Nathaniel

  15. October 28, 2009 at 9:40 am

    It was nicely and informatively discussed.

    • October 28, 2009 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks! I’m partial to it, myself. 😉

  16. Ken
    October 28, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    I applaud the integrity and guts you showed as an 11 year old. There was a day when it was up to adults to teach the young and not the other way around.
    I have to wonder, after all was said and done, if ANY of those adult bystanders secretly regretted allowing a child to be the only one who did “the right thing”

    I enjoy your writing.

    Regards

    Ken
    Ontario Canada

    • October 28, 2009 at 3:49 pm

      Hey there Ken!

      While I agree that it would have been nice for an adult to have taken action, I’m just glad that ultimately the man in question had to take responsibility for his actions.

      Thanks for your support!

      -Nathaniel

  17. October 28, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    This blog made me think. I like that you spoke up and said something. Sometimes there’s just a feeling of shame – that you are witnessing something, which is why we don’t say anything. But it is important to just blurt out what is going on. Twice on a NYC bus, I have had attempts at crimes – one man exposed himself and one woman tried to pick my purse. Both times I talked forcefully to the rest of the bus, “This woman right here just had her hand in my purse.” “This man just exposed himself. Does anyone see a police officer nearby?” I felt terrible for speaking out but I would’ve felt more terrible had I said nothing! My loud talking caused discomfort in the bus, I could tell, but it’s important too we teach our kids to talk up when they see something wrong. http://mybeautifulnewyork.wordpress.com/

    • October 28, 2009 at 4:24 pm

      Hello Mary Beth,

      You absolutely should not have felt bad about speaking out on the bus. You did exactly what you should have done and what many people would themselves have done in similar situations.

      Even if you witness something being done to someone else, you should speak up. At worst, it’s a misunderstanding and you have to apologize to the person you accused. That, in my humble opinion, is not much of a price to pay when you consider that you could do a really good thing if you turn out to be correct.

      People need to be more willing to help others within reason. I don’t advocate putting one’s self in harm’s way or donating your children’s college fund (except perhaps in extreme situations in both cases), but a little extra effort from everyone could go a long way.

      Cheers!

      -Nathaniel

  18. October 28, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    I found your example amusing – when I was around the same age, I myself confronted a line-jumper. Since all the people in line were complaining about how aggressive these line-jumpers were being, I figured they’d join in once someone did something…instead, I think I embarrassed my older brother. The line-jumper put me down hard then proceeded to the front of the line…but at least I didn’t have to listen to any more complaints from the others, after that.

    I have always wondered why that happened the way it did. The sheer number of line-jumpers must have added a half hour to our wait, and yet I felt the sense of hostility shifted from them to me, as soon as I took action.

    I think we are observing far more than just the “bystander effect”. I mean, I’m not saying that effect isn’t real, but I think it’s bolstered by a host of beliefs that support cowardice, justify bad behaviors, and aim the real hostility at anyone who tries to bridge the gap between the rules we pretend to live by vs. the rules we actually do.

    Notice that all three events (both line-jumping events and the gang rape) took place during a time when people are at a a “festive” sort of occasion – the sort of event where it’s appropriate to follow a special rule-set, what you might call “party time rules”. Confrontation kills parties (“fun time is over”) – not just for the combatants, but for everyone; the festive mood is fragile. There is something antisocial about interrupting festivities to start a confrontation, or make a moral judgment. That is the behavior of a “killjoy”. (Something to think about next time you laugh at what Sir Tobey does to Malvolio….)

    • October 28, 2009 at 3:54 pm

      I’m curious what you were waiting in line for because the reaction of the others in line seems very odd. I’m inclined to assume that you weren’t waiting on line for a ride at an amusement park or to get into a popular movie because most people would be justifiably angry at anyone who tried to jump the line and supportive of anyone who tried to stop such behavior.

      I doubt that people waiting in the hot sun for an hour at a Six Flags park would be in much of a festive mood. 😉

      I can’t really speak much more to this without knowing the details, though. All I can say is that you shouldn’t doubt yourself for having tried to do the right thing. Trying to do something and failing is better than not having tried at all.

      Cheers!

      -Nathaniel

  19. October 28, 2009 at 1:39 pm

    Oh – I should mention: the line-jumper I confronted? It was also at a Six Flags park (the one in CA)

    I never went back to any Six Flags amusement park after that, simply because Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland were both willing to provide adequate security, and that made the whole amusement park experience ever so much nicer there….

    • October 28, 2009 at 4:03 pm

      I probably should have read this follow-up comment before my reply to your previous one. 🙂

      I must admit that I’m shocked that people in line would have this sort of attitude towards someone who tried to stop a person from cutting into the line. I can’t say that I personally know a single person who would be fine with someone trying to do this. In fact, my friends and I would be the first people to confront such a person and make sure they didn’t succeed.

      I’m sorry that you had to deal with that especially after having stood up for everyone. I agree with you that this is certainly leaving the realm of the bystander effect. I wonder if there’s some sort of group psychological phenomenon whereby people become antagonistic towards someone trying to disrupt the “emotional state” of the group even if the person’s intention was to help the group. I’ll have to do some research into that…

      • October 29, 2009 at 3:22 pm

        I gave it some thought, and all I can come up with – persistently – is the ambiguity of the situation. Was it appropriate to act the way I did? Or should I have minded my own business?

        I’m quite sure I remember the crowd complaining, and a sign warning people that there was no “holding place” in line – if you left for ANY reason, you lost your place in line. I have held these in my memory like a talisman, as if to say, no matter how wrong I was, I wasn’t! I really wasn’t! (haha)

        And yet – my brother was embarrassed by my behavior. So I must have been reading the situation wrong in SOME sense….

        Perhaps this is a key to the bystander effect. Powerful social signals (that everyone but me, the earnest geeky overly sheltered kid, picks up on), overriding normal reactions, perhaps?

        The amusement parks of the late 1970s and early 1980s had a really — almost sinister atmosphere. It was a time when parks got run down, neglected, some of the smaller parks closed because of drug problems or unsafe rides or crime or whatever. So maybe I was applying my Disneyland expectations on a much “older” atmosphere?

        Just don’t know….ugh will probably be haunting my thoughts for a week tho 🙂

  20. October 29, 2009 at 7:24 am

    Hello,
    Did you receive my comment in support of the article you wrote on The Bystander Effect?
    David

  21. October 29, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Hi Nathaniel,
    Indeed, I see you got my article. I think my web browser was stuck when I checked to see if you had read it.
    Thank you for listening, David

    P.S. I am happy you are getting a lot of feedback on your post. Here is the link to my article with the hope that people will share it too to end this Bystander Effect http://thewondertechnique.net/2009/10/27/the-bystander-effect/

    P.P.S. I sent a comment to CNN on the topic offering solutions but it never got posted. Maybe if you have time you can visit and send them your thoughts on the bystander effect – there are over 500 comments at this time the link is http://edition.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/10/28/california.gang.rape.bystander/index.html

  22. October 29, 2009 at 8:14 am

    I just want to mention because of the power of the “Group” and it influence that suppresses the individual to speak up there is to me only one solution and that is as individuals for us to strengthen ourselves. I know it is not always easy but when we boost our self confidence and speak up we lead by example. When we have children we have to lead them by example too.

    Personally, I grew up shy and resistant to speak up but I always wanted to speak up and share. So over the years I have trained my mind so I am more confident to the point that I now help other people reach their goals.

    I must mention that I have posted on the following link three books (not written by me) that are all about training our minds to be stronger one book is an excellent book for parents. I have read and learned from them all.
    http://www.thewondertechnique.com/recommended-success-wellness.htm

    Thanks again for listing,
    David Hennessey
    http://www.TheWonderTechnique.com

  23. October 28, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Great article! I’m honored to have been referenced in it! 🙂

  1. October 28, 2009 at 8:06 am
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