The Bystander Effect Can Happen to Anyone—Here's How to Avoid It

In a time where it’s trending to be passive, be a moral rebel.

Let's say you've just witnessed a situation where someone desperately needs assistance. If you scrolled across this scene in your Facebook feed, you'd probably feel sympathetic. You might even be inclined to share it on your personal page or donate to the cause. But if you experienced the same situation in public where you actually had the opportunity to help in real time, psychology says the likelihood of you doing anything is, sadly, slim.

Here's the depressing reality: There seems to be a major disconnect between what people believe they would do in a hypothetical situation from what they actually do when faced with the situation in real life. Why? While most of us naturally feel empathetic towards someone in need from afar, it's not instinctual to interfere in person. This phenomenon, dubbed the bystander effect, is when there is mass inaction from people who can make a difference.

Take the infamous 1964 Kitty Genovese case, for instance. As the story goes, a woman was killed outside her apartment building in densely populated Queens, N.Y. Many people heard the young woman screaming for help, but nobody opened their doors or bothered to help. Today, we see countless AAPI women and elderly attacked in plain sight, yet we almost never see anyone coming to their aid. Case in point: A video caught on security footage showed three bystanders inside a Manhattan luxury condo who witnessed one of these violent, unprovoked attacks, but did not intervene. One of them even closed the door to avoid the victim.

According to Leah Weiss, PhD, MSW, a psychologist, mindfulness author, and co-founder of Skylyte, the research reveals a simple alarming occurrence: The more people who witness a stranger in peril, the less likely any individual is to come to their aid.

But why does the bystander effect happen in the first place? Surely we're all decent people. Is it a conscious choice to stand back? Inevitable paralysis? A sense of incompetence? Fear?

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Why Are We Less Likely to Help Others?

In reality, it's all of the above. "When faced with something out of the ordinary, we may not instantly recognize what's happening or what to do about it," says Desreen Dudley, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Teladoc. "The brain's autonomic nervous system triggers the 'fight, flight, or freeze' response to protect us from danger. This self-preservation instinct is a big de-motivator when having to confront a perceived threat or dangerous situation."

The more people who witness a stranger in peril, the less likely any individual is to come to their aid.

In addition to triggered paralysis, a perceived presence of others can create a diffusion of responsibility. Any sense of moral responsibility to intervene is spread over so many that no single witness feels enough responsibility to do so. You think, "If others are present, someone else more capable will help, so I don't need to." This is often combined with a fear of judgment from others and lack of clarity about what is considered an emergency. "As social beings, we often take our cues from others' reactions around us," says Dudley. "You may be inclined to think, 'What if I'm overreacting and I make a fool out of myself?' or, 'If others in the group are witnessing the same thing that I am and not intervening, this may not be as serious as I am thinking it is.'"

How to Break the Bystander Mentality

However, this is not a hard-and-fast rule; sometimes people in groups are able to break out of the bystander role. In hundreds of bystander studies, anomalies do exist where bystanders didn't just stand by, but actually helped the victim. "There is ample research showing that we indeed have automatic wiring to help others—even toddlers demonstrate this innate competency," says Weiss. "Dispositions can change with education and practice."

The good news is that you've already taken the initial step to becoming an active bystander: Knowing it exists. Dudley recommends building empathy by considering what you may feel like if you were in the victim's position, and what you hope others would do for you.

Next, force yourself to adopt a mindset in opposition to what creates the bystander effect. Be cognizant of situations that may require intervention. When you do notice a problem, don't expect or wait for others to help. "If you find yourself in a crowded place and witness someone in distress, keep in mind that each person in the group is thinking that someone else is going to step in," says Weiss. Always assume that nobody else will assist, and take personal responsibility for intervening in some way.

Is self-consciousness the problem? Dudley says it's OK to be selfish (in fact, it's the psychological basis behind most charity-giving)—as long as it's rewired to do good. This is often referred to as the "feel good, do good" effect. "Worry less about negative evaluation from others if you were to intervene, and instead consider the positive feelings and moral boost you can feel by being the person to show an act of kindness."

If intervening in emergency situations is especially difficult for you to do—whether due to social anxiety or your own traumatic history—talking to a mental health professional through virtual platforms like Teladoc can also help you to overcome your fears.

Adopt an Action Plan

Once you've shattered the bystander mentality for good, it's equally important to know how to act safely and effectively. There's something called the five "Ds" of intervention that can help, according to Right To Be and Sarb Johal, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of Steady: A Guide to Better Mental Health Through and Beyond the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Distract: If direct intervention is difficult, a distraction can momentarily diffuse the situation. Asking to borrow a phone from a person involved in the situation or creating some other kind of diversion can create an opportunity for a circuit breaker to help change the momentum or direction of escalation.

Delegate: Don't feel you have to act alone. If you feel like you can't handle the situation by yourself, enlist help from official authorities such as the police, security, or a store supervisor.

Document: It can be really helpful to record an incident as it happens to someone (that's how AAPI hate has come to light), but there are a number of things to keep in mind when safely and responsibly documenting harassment. Assess your safety before you go ahead and start recording, and ALWAYS ask the person who was harassed what they want to do with the recording. Publicizing another person's traumatic experience without their consent is no way to be an effective and helpful bystander.

Delay: Some types of harassment happen in passing or very quickly, in which case you might have to wait until the situation is over to speak to the person who was targeted. It's always good practice to ask them if they're OK and if there's any way you can support them, or offer to accompany them to their destination or sit with them for a while.

Direct: Perhaps you witness a situation between a friend and another person that looks like it may escalate, so you step in and pull your friend out of the situation. When safe, being direct is the most immediate way to intervene in a situation to prevent it from turning into a crisis.

At this time in our history, it's even more crucial that we show up for one another as active witnesses. In the wise words of Smokey Bear, only you can prevent the bystander effect. And in the wise words of Johal (someone more qualified to speak on this topic): "Being a helper is less about exceptional people doing amazing things. It's more about people who are acting on habits built over a lifetime...The goal is to make helping become a habitual response to stress and situations where others may need help. If you practice helping behaviors once, you're more likely to do them again. With enough practice, they become part of your identity."

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  1. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Be aware to care: Public self-awareness leads to a reversal of the bystander effect.

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