The bystander effect

Walk on by – the bystander effect

The bystander effect explains something that at first seems counter-intuitive – that if you’re knocked down in a street with only two other people present you’re three times as likely to get help as if there were four people who saw the accident.  What on earth is happening there?

Most of us like to think that we’d have a cool head in an emergency. Perhaps we’d take charge of the situation, our quiet authority making us the natural leader. We certainly wouldn’t try and ignore a building on fire, especially if we were in the building at the time. Actually, you probably would.

The classic experiment that shows how the bystander effect changes our willingness to act was carried out back in 1969. In this experiment people were left alone in a waiting room, that began to feel with smoke, and as a result 75% of the subjects reported the suspected fire.

The experiment was repeated, but this time people were accompanied by two others who had been told not to react to the smoke. As a result only 38% of the subjects reported the fire – in other words the presence of two other people had made them only half as likely to report the fire themselves. But what can the reason be for this?

Part of the explanation is our inherently social orientation, and the pressure we feel to conform to the group. Other experiments have shown that we are happy to deny the evidence of our own eyes in order to conform to “groupthink”. The bystander effect is an extension of this, the idea being that we wait for someone else to react before we do. When everyone in the group waits for everyone else this results in blanket inaction.

Ambiguity is another factor in how large a part the bystander effect has on individuals’ reactions. If we aren’t sure what we are seeing isn’t just a parent with a difficult child, rather than a stranger abducting a child, we are much less likely to act. Again this stems from social conditioning, and not wanting to step outside the norms of behaviour.

It is also in part about our reliance on mental models of other peoples’ behaviour, and the fact that we are much more likely to categorise it as something that we are familiar with, like a child having a tantrum, than with something much rarer.

So what could you do to make sure that you don’t end up waiting for someone else to intervene next time you’re faced with a potential n accident or emergency? Simply knowing that you might be affected by the bystander effect is considered enough by some psychologists. The pay-off is that once you act others are much more likely to follow suit and help as well.

What though if you are the person having the accident, and those around you aren’t enlightened enough to understand the bystander effect? The answer here is to appeal not to those around you as a whole, but to an individual. Personalising your appeal to them, and personalising your own situation, are you’re best option. Again, once one person has started to help others will feel permission to follow suit.

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