What Is The Bystander Effect And Is It Dangerous?
Many of us have been in situations where someone is being harmed, having a medical emergency, or otherwise calling out for someone to come to their rescue. But how many of us have stepped in to help?
Keep reading to learn more about the origin of the bystander effect and its impact on society.
The Origins Of The Bystander Effect
Years ago, researchers set out to understand what would later be called the bystander effect. Interest in this phenomenon started in 1964 after Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered in Queens, New York. There were multiple witnesses who both heard and saw the crime, but no one intervened or called the police.
Scientists wanted to know what had happened and why no one tried to help. This strange case of group psychology was subsequently studied and researched for years and even became a well-known reference in books and movies.
Defining The Bystander Effect
Scientists define the bystander effect as a phenomenon that occurs in groups of people where they all resist the notion of helping as individuals. The group allows the event to occur even though they're aware of it. Researchers soon learned that the larger a crowd is, the more likely it is that no one will act when someone is hurt.
The reasons behind the bystander effect have interested psychologists for years. In Kitty Genovese's case, calling the bystander effect "apathy" would be inaccurate. Onlookers can be sympathetic and even desire to intervene and offer help. However, due to many potential factors, they don't act on these desires. People who are bystanders in tragic or urgent situations may even feel guilty for it later, believing they should have done more.
Is The Bystander Effect Dangerous?
Given that the bystander effect can keep people from intervening in emergency situations, it can pose a danger to society—particularly to individuals who are most vulnerable. However, because getting involved in any unfamiliar situation can pose risks to bystanders, it is possible that the bystander effect keeps other people safe. For example, getting involved in a medical emergency versus a violent crime can pose different risk levels for the individual who jumps in to help.
Mob Mentality And The Bystander Effect
There have long been general observations of mob mentality and what experts call "group mind," which psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon discussed. However, the Kitty Genovese case was so notorious that it prompted an official laboratory-based study by John M. Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968. According to their research, the presence of a large group of people inhibits individuals from taking decisive action.
Latané even staged a one year later. An experimenter met with participants either alone or in groups of two. She then left the room and played a recording that simulated a fall and subsequent injury. Of the participants who heard the fall while alone, 70% offered to help. Of those who were paired with another participant, only 40% offered to help.
A less extreme example of the same dynamic might be when children in a class deliberately don’t ask the teacher additional questions, even if the teacher asks them if they have questions or if they know they may fail a test. They likely fear being perceived as different from others who aren't asking for help. Similarly, if everyone in a significant group witnesses a crime and no one steps forward, the group often starts to think it may not be an emergency after all.
Another powerful dynamic is what psychologists call diffusion of responsibility. In one study, a group of people was asked to wait in a room together, and they observed smoke rising from underneath the door. Surprisingly, the more people in the room, the fewer individuals spoke up about the smoke. These studies shed light on another possible motivation: many people may not speak up because they don't want to accept responsibility for taking a specific action.
Evolution And The Bystander Effect
This diffusion of responsibility may be linked to humans’ evolutionary development. Latané's studies mention that the degree of emergency is determined by each bystander who goes through a variety of cognitive and behavioral processes. These individuals interpret the scene and gauge their level of responsibility in acting or holding back. Latané also notes that these processes include variables such as whether the person deserves help, whether they can help themselves, and what obligation is owed to the person in need based on their relationship with the bystander. In some cases, a lack of connection to the individual in distress may play a part in a bystander’s decision.
More Bystander Effect Examples
Another aspect of the bystander effect may be the intimidation factor, which often comes into play in instances of bullying. The intimidation factor refers to the idea that people may be more likely to back down from intervening if they sense that acting would put them in the path of the same danger they observe.
Another theory that might explain inaction would be how well the observer understands the environment, including the streets, exits, sources of help, etc. If they are in an unfamiliar setting, it may be more difficult to help because of an instinct of self-preservation.
Another motivation may be group cohesiveness. The more cohesive a group, the more likely people typically are to react as a unit. Police officers are expected to intervene in most dangerous situations, not only because it's their job but also because police officers work as a cohesive force.
Altruism, the act of playing the hero even if it's just temporarily, seems more likely to occur if the hero sees similar traits in the person he's rescuing. This can make the individual in distress seem familiar, and a simulation of cohesiveness is attained. This may explain why many did not intervene in Genovese's case since, in large cities (where nighttime is perceived as dangerous and unwelcoming), people are often unacquainted with each other. Thus, sympathy may be minimal or absent.
Seeking Support As A Bystander With Online Therapy
The emotions that can arise after being involved in a bystander situation can create challenging emotions, such as guilt, shame, and sadness. If you're having trouble processing your feelings or moving forward, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed counselor. If trauma makes it difficult to leave home to see a therapist, you might consider online therapy.
With online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp, you can discuss past traumas from home or anywhere you feel safe. The option of communicating with your therapist through video chats, phone calls, or live chat may help you feel more comfortable to talk during therapy sessions.
The Efficacy Of Online Therapy For Bystander Guilt
Those who have witnessed a traumatic event may be experiencing bystander guilt, which can occur when a person feels bad about what happened to someone else or wishes they had done more to assist. Studies have shown that therapy can be a useful intervention for concerns such as guilt. In one study published in Current Treatment Options in Psychiatry, researchers found that trauma-informed guilt reduction therapy was effective in “reducing guilt that is common to moral injury as well as PTSD and depression symptoms among combat veterans.”
If you need help moving past feelings of guilt, it could be beneficial to connect with an online therapist for support. Online therapy has been shown to be equally as effective as in-person therapy, and it gives participants the option to choose from various interventions, including trauma-informed guilt reduction therapy.
In some cases, the assistance of a licensed online therapist could be beneficial during this process. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping people recover from a traumatic event. Take the first step toward healing and reach out to BetterHelp today.
What Is The Bystander Effect And Its Victim Effects?
According to research published in Psychological Bulletin, “Research on bystander intervention has produced a great number of studies showing that the presence of other people in a critical situation reduces the likelihood that an individual will help.” This may be caused by pluralistic ignorance, in which people make assumptions about what others believe. Researchers who study social psychology and human behavior believe the bystander effect occurs because bystanders often assume that someone else will step in to help. This can lead to worse outcomes for the victim if people delay offering help.
Who Made The Bystander Effect?
The bystander effect was described and studied by Darley and Bibb Latané, who conducted bystander research in the 1960s. In 1968, there was the famous case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was murdered in New York City despite neighbors hearing her being attacked. At the time, it was believed to prove the bystander effect. However, researchers now believe that several neighbors did intervene and call the police.
How Can We Prevent Bystander Effect?
The bystander effect might be prevented or mitigated by education. If people become aware of this phenomenon, they may be less likely to assume that other bystanders are going to respond in an emergency.
What Is Another Name For The Bystander Effect?
The bystander effect is sometimes also called bystander apathy. In the scientific literature, you may also see the term implicit bystander effect, but this refers to something slightly different in bystander behavior. It refers to the idea that simply priming a study participant by telling them there are others present can affect their likelihood of helping.
Can The Bystander Effect Ever Be Positive?
Some psychological factors involved in the bystander effect may lead people to intervene. For example, if other people are present, a person might be afraid of judgment if they don’t intervene.
Why Is It Important To Not Be A Bystander?
An unresponsive bystander may inadvertently assume that other observers have already called for help. The victim could end up suffering unnecessary harm if everyone assumes help is on the way.
How Effective Is Bystander Intervention?
Bystander intervention training can make a significant difference. It may help people question their assumptions and take action in dangerous situations. Bystander interventions may save a person from experiencing significant harm.
Do Bystanders Have A Responsibility To Intervene?
While bystanders may not be subject to legal consequences if they don’t intervene, many people believe they have an ethical responsibility to intervene as long as their own lives are not in danger. If they step in to help, they are typically not liable for any harm done unintentionally during an emergency (during which an unqualified person might provide possibly dangerous assistance).
What Are The Major Moral Issues Raised By The Bystander Effect?
The major concerns raised by the bystander effect are typically related to the ethical responsibility a person might have to help a person in an emergency situation. This ethical consideration may be affected by the presence of danger for the bystander.
What Is The Purpose Of Bystander Intervention?
The purpose of bystander intervention training is to help people become aware of the bystander effect and develop skills to act with courage. This training may help bystanders perceive their role differently, take personal responsibility, and engage in direct intervention when someone is in danger in real life.
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