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Don’t Just Stand There: Why Bystanders Do Nothing

You’re in a business meeting with your boss and a coworker and your boss asks a question. How likely are you to respond? Probably pretty likely. Now you’re sitting in a business meeting with your boss and ten other coworkers. She asks a question, and though everyone knows the answer, including you, there are crickets. Why is this? It’s an everyday example of the bystander problem, the social-psychological phenomenon that says the more people that are present in a situation, the less likely an individual is to respond to a request for action, whether it’s a question from your boss or a cry for help. 

Kitty Genovese and the Bystander Problem
In his bestselling book The Tipping Point, science writer Malcolm Gladwell describes a shocking event that occurred in a Queens, New York, neighborhood in 1964. Recent investigations suggest the story was exaggerated in the media, but the facts remain that a young woman named Kitty Genovese was attacked and stabbed repeatedly over a period of half an hour while thirty-eight witnesses heard her screams or saw the attack and did nothing, not even call the police. 

Many of the news accounts of the incident focused on the lack of moral character of the witnesses and the dehumanizing alienation of urban living. But two social psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley, believed it had to have been more than that. All thirty-eight witnesses could not have been monsters. 

Through a series of experiments, Latané and Darley reached the conclusion that the probability of action by an individual in an emergency is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders. In one of the experiments, the researchers asked participants to take a survey in a room that slowly filled with smoke. When the participants were alone, 75 percent of them reported the smoke. When they were joined by two other participants, only 38 percent of the groups reported it. When a participant was joined by two “confederates,” who were in on the experiment and ignored the smoke, the number of participants who reported the “emergency” fell to an astounding 10 percent. 

Why We Don’t Help
There are many reasons an otherwise law-abiding, moral person might, in the midst of a crowd, relinquish accountability. In an instance where intervention might bring personal risk to the bystander, we might be able to understand. People don’t speak up for fear of becoming the new target. Fear for the safety of their own families was a reason many people gave for not helping Jews trying to hide from Nazi persecution during World War II. But when there is no apparent risk—for example, for someone to call the cops when Kitty Genovese was being attacked—the issue becomes murkier. 

One factor, psychologists suggest, is something called diffusion of responsibility—the more people that are present, the less singular responsibility one feels. Another is pluralistic ignorance—the private rejection of a norm with the incorrect assumption that others have accepted it. In other words, if no one else is acting, some people believe action is not needed. Bystanders reach this conclusion using a tool coined social proof. As social beings, we rely on the information we gather from those around us to inform our own actions. This plays a large part in herd behavior. When we are involved in an ambiguous situation, we consciously and subconsciously look to others, assuming that they have more knowledge or information, for how to react. 

The problem happens when everyone assumes that others have good information, when in reality no one does. As in the smoke room experiment, when the confederates displayed wrong information, that the smoke was of no concern, or when the other participants were just as clueless, most people jumped to the wrong conclusion—that nothing needed to be done. Witnesses of Kitty Genovese’s murder saw other people watching, closing their blinds, or not intervening and assumed either that someone else had already reported the incident or that it was a lover’s quarrel. Tragically, they were all wrong. 

Fear of embarrassment also plays a role. Bystanders might doubt their ability to assess a situation. If they rush to the aid of someone who doesn’t need it or want it, they risk the embarrassment of overreacting. In the age of television shows like Punk’d or Candid Camera, the inclination to second-guess oneself when unbelievable crises happen before our eyes is, perhaps, more pronounced. No one wants to be punked. 

Another factor is fear of blame. If you help a fallen man up, will those around you assume you were responsible for knocking him down? Bystanders may distance themselves from a situation for fear of being associated with it or even mistaken for the cause. 

Is It a Question of Morality?
There have been several rather disturbing accounts in the media recently of the bystander problem at its worst. Recently, as many as twenty bystanders watched, some even joining in, as a fifteen-year-old high school student was gang-raped at a homecoming dance in Richmond, California. The month before, in Chicago, fellow students watched and videotaped a sixteen-year-old boy, an innocent bystander himself, beaten to death by gangs. And last year, a video made the rounds on YouTube and TV talk shows of bystanders ignoring an elderly man lying in the street after a hit-and-run accident. 

In all these cases, public officials and commentators bemoaned our culture’s loss of a moral compass, blaming the bystanders as much as the perpetrators. But is it a crime of the individual or of the situation? 

There is a famous poem, often attributed to the German pastor Martin Niemöller titled “First They Came.” A commentary on the passivity of German intellectuals during the Nazi rise to power, at least one version of the poem begins, “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Communist.” It goes on to list the various groups of “undesirables” the Nazis attempted to purge from German and then European society, each time the author describing his inaction as a bystander. The poem ends, “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” 

That atrocities like the Holocaust or genocide in Rwanda and the Sudan continue to happen is perhaps the strongest argument that the bystander problem is deeply rooted in humanity’s complicated social psyche. But the problem persists not just in extreme cases; the bystander effect is at work when no one stops for a traffic accident, when a child is bullied on the playground, when people pass by litter on the sidewalk without picking it up, or even when no one replies to a “Reply All” email. 

We all have the potential to fall victim to the bystander problem, and statistically speaking, most of us will. Some people do, however, act. There are heroes, and there are whistleblowers. What is the difference between active bystanders, those who choose to respond, and passive bystanders, those who don’t? Research on altruism suggests that a generally heightened concern for the welfare of others, perhaps stemming from a more tolerant and empathetic upbringing, can spur people to be more active bystanders. Active bystanders share some basic personality traits, including, according to Samuel Oliner, a Holocaust survivor and sociologist and coauthor of the book The Altruistic Personality, the capacity for deep relationships and a strong sense of attachment to others. 

How to Get the Help You Need
You might have heard that you should yell “fire” in an emergency rather than “help.” There is some sense to this advice, though actually, you should probably yell neither. If you find yourself the victim in a bystander situation, make your need clear (“My house is on fire; call the fire department,” or “A man is following me; please don’t let him near me”) and, if possible, request help from a specific person (“You, please help me”). Research suggests eye contact and body orientation may also help—perhaps not the first thing you will be thinking about after a car wreck, but helpful in the above-mentioned business meeting. 

Some organizations and corporations are being proactive in their approach to the bystander problem, offering bystander training for sexual harassment, assault, and bullying. The truth is no one knows how she will act in a crisis until it happens. But the first step toward saving someone’s life or dignity is recognizing that you are a bystander. In today’s world, we are all bystanders.