The Bystander Effect: Why You're Not Going to Help | Teen Ink

The Bystander Effect: Why You're Not Going to Help

May 27, 2016
By Eric.X PLATINUM, Mason, Ohio
Eric.X PLATINUM, Mason, Ohio
24 articles 53 photos 8 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot from striking." - William B. Yeats

Picture this. You’re running late on your first day of work in a big law firm in New York City, and while walking to the bus stop, you see a man clutch his chest and then collapse. There’s a crowd of people walking by him, but they’re all ignoring him. Do you stop to help him, or do you continue on your way to work? Chances are, if you’re like the majority of people, you’d assume that since no one else was stopping to help him, he’s probably fine, or that you’d be late if you stopped to help and that someone else would notice the man and do something about him. Now imagine you’re out for a stroll. It’s a nice evening, and you’re in no hurry to get anywhere. Suddenly you hear someone call out for help. What do you do? Most likely, you’d go over and see what the problem is. And if that person needed help, why, like any decent human being, you’d probably go help that person. So what’s the difference here? It’s a phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect, and as you can see, it can have serious consequences on your actions.

The Bystander Effect states that the more people that are present, the less likely that any one of those people are to help a person in need. And this may affect you more than you realize. It’s a strange quirk of human nature that can have massive consequences. If you’ve ever flipped through a psychology textbook, you’ve heard of the case of Catherine ‘Kitty’ Genovese. A young bar manager, returning to her apartment in the early hours of the morning after a late shift, is attacked and stabbed to death by a man (later identified as Winston Moseley ), while her neighbors supposedly watched it all play out, not lifting a finger to help. As stated by the Guardian, “We’d like to think, upon hearing terror-filled screams deep in the night outside our apartment windows that we would do the right thing and call for help. But we can’t know that for sure. That frisson of uncertainty ought to haunt any decent human being” (Weinmann 10). As it turned out, the original story by the New York Times on the Genovese murder was greatly exaggerated - none of the witnesses were able to see the whole thing, and only two of them actually saw Kitty. But still, the very fact that people could very possibly stand by and watch as another human being is murdered is chilling (and yes, people have watched others die without helping).

Of course, not every situation where the Bystander Effect is involved is a life and death emergency, but when it is, it’s better to know and be prepared. Taking another cue from literature, this time the Lord of the Flies, what happens when we just stand idly by, thinking that someone else will take care of our problems? Generally, the answer to that question is not the collapse of organized society and a quick descent to savage and barbaric ways, but with the right conditions (read: a bunch of immature kids, no supervision, and a demagogue to ruin things) bad things happen. As it goes in the book, “For a moment he had a fleeting picture of the strange glamour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood - Simon was dead - and Jack had… The tears began to flow and sobs shook him” (Golding 286). We find ourselves affected - willingly and unwillingly - by this psychological phenomenon. The Bystander Effect, more often than not, is a cause of malicious human behavior, indifference towards suffering being a major offender. One of the most common examples of this behavior is when people are being bullied, there are often bystanders, people uninvolved in the situation but also unwilling to help. We’ve all had some experience with bullying in the past, whether we’ve been the bullied or the bully.

So, how can you - yes, you, the one sitting down reading this article - do something about this? Though it might seem that you need some kind of fancy psychological training to take on the Bystander Effect, all you need to do is to simply pick someone out of the crowd. Maintain eye-contact with a specified person in the crowd. Don’t just yell for ‘someone’, yell, ‘hey, you! Please help!’ Now, why exactly does this work? It’s because of diffusion of responsibility, or people assuming that since there are other people around, someone else must be able to solve the problem, which in turn encourages the ‘I don’t want to get involved’ mentality. As stated by Tyler Tervooren, author of the psychology blog Riskology, “Psychologists call this the diffusion of responsibility. You figure, ‘Hey, I’m in a hurry and there are lots of people around. Whatever problem that needs to be solved—the homeless guy who needs food, the litter in the park, the lost puppy wandering around, etc.—will get taken care of… by someone else’” (Tervooren 18). By asking a specific person, you’re disabling diffusion of responsibility. If you specifically request someone’s assistance, than diffusion of responsibility can’t happen because ‘someone’ else isn’t being asked to help, nor is a group of people; a specific person is, and it becomes much more difficult for bystanders to justify not helping when they’ve been asked to assist directly. But the easiest way to counteract to Bystander Effect is to simply understand it. Once you know what the Effect is and what it does, it has much less of an affect on you.

So, the next time you see someone in need, don’t ignore it. You have the know-how and the capability to change things. You have the power to make a difference.


Works Cited:

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Penguin, 2003. 286. Print.

Tervooren, Tyler. "Bystander Effect: If You Need Help, You'd Better Ask For It - Riskology." Riskology. Tyler Tervooren, 21 July 2014. Web. 16 May 2016.

Weinman, Sarah. "Why We Still Look Away: Kitty Genovese, James Bulger and the Bystander Effect." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 09 Apr. 2016. Web. 17 May 2016.

The author's comments:

A short nonfiction piece on an interesting pyschological effect.

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This article has 14 comments.

Barb said...
on Jun. 2 2016 at 8:01 am
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on Jun. 1 2016 at 11:11 pm
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on Jun. 1 2016 at 8:59 pm
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on Jun. 1 2016 at 6:21 pm
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on Jun. 1 2016 at 5:39 pm
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kchen said...
on Jun. 1 2016 at 4:04 pm
“ the next time you see someone in need, don’t ignore it. You have the know-how and the capability to change things. You have the power to make a difference.” Very good point!

Reader said...
on Jun. 1 2016 at 2:59 pm
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on Jun. 1 2016 at 2:42 pm
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