Combatting the bystander effect

I talk a lot in my day to day work about the bystander effect.  The more I talk about this psychological phenomenon, the more I’m convinced that as a society, its impact is important, often damaging.

The more society knows about it’s impact the easier it will be to overcome.  For me there is a clear need to get the science out there and allow people to invent wise ways to counter the effect.

We are a species who, by nature, are a compassionate and a care-giving species.  We do possess a desire to help others.  It’s who we are.

The reality is, for a number of reasons, that bit more complicated.  A number of ‘invisible’ forces, psychological and social exist, that can prevent us from helping or responding safely, when faced with a challenging or dangerous situation.  These forces lead us to feelings of confusion, distraction, even insecurity.

When these forces appear, the presence of inactive others can influence to us simply watch, to wait and so become bystanders ourselves.  In many cases these forces lead to us either ignoring danger or not lending a hand to another person, even a friend.  This is the bystander effect.

As I mention above every one of us possesses the ability to help others.  By understanding the dynamics of these situations, we can in many ways press the pause button, and act appropriately and safely when we recognise a situation unfolding.

When we witness a situation that is unclear we often look to others for a better idea of what is happening.  This presents an obvious problem in that it is likely other individuals are thinking exactly the same.  We are in many ways the push back for each other.  In situations that are either unclear or challenging there is a clear need for someone to take responsibility.  One person CAN do so much.

The concept of growth mind-set suggests that we can adapt to these types of situations.  We can, with practice, enhance our natural instinct to help others and overcome the tendency to be a passive bystander.  Instead of watching and doing nothing, we can all learn skills and strategies that will help us respond safely in challenging situations.

There exists a wealth of psychological studies which have identified the obstacles to intervention.  These same studies have also, thankfully identified ways for us to overcome these.

Darley & Latane, 1968 identify 5 steps to helping someone in need:

Spot something is happening – This first step requires an individual to notice that someone needs help or something unusual is taking place.  Being aware of the bystander effect can make us more sensitive to and more aware of unusual situations.  In many ways this awareness allows us to pause the pause button and ask, is this weird? Does someone need my help? Am I a bystander right now? Simply being more aware will make it more likely that you will more readily notice these types of situations.

Recognise that someone is in need of help – Noticing an event is one thing but realising that a person needs help is another.  Cries for help could be mistaken for shrieks of laughter.  A fight could be seen as a bit of ‘bonding’.

Any situation that is unclear leads to the thinking “Does he/she really need my help?  The less clear a situation the less likely a person will correctly identify a person in need.

Our perceptions around relationships are also a factor.  When a person sees a woman attacked by a man, they assume the man is in a relationship with the female, even when there is no evidence to the contrary.  In these cases, the evidence suggest people are less likely to intervene.

We don’t by routine get involved in the relationships of others.  A rule of thumb here is ‘trust your gut’.  If your gut thinks something is wrong, it usually is.  Furthermore, it is likely others will share your instincts.  As I say above, one person CAN do so much.  Act on your gut.

Take responsibility for providing help – Taking responsibility for the challenging or unclear situation is the next step.  In a group some will wait for others to take this responsibility.

Whilst in some situations there may be safety in numbers it is clear the larger the group the less likely anyone will take this much needed responsibility.  A barrier to taking responsibility is the concern about what others will think if you get it wrong.  Practice makes perfect.  In your day to day life stand out from the crowd.

Be like my friend Matt, wear orange trousers.  Practice being different.  This will help you take that much needed responsibility.

Decide how to help – Once a person has taken responsibility to act the next clear step is for that person to decide how to help.  It is clear that when an individual feels capable of assisting they are more likely to intervene to render assistance.

 An obvious example would be a person trained in CPR feeling able to assist in a situation that requires these specific set of skills.  A person not trained or comfortable in performing CPR would probably not or be reluctant to help.

However, individuals can, and do respond using other methods that are effective.  Using personal phones to phone emergency services, engaging those around situations can provide safety in numbers.  Shouting from a safe distance or distracting a situation can also be effective in reducing or eliminating risk.  Speaking to say a door steward in a pub or guard on a train defers the issues to someone who is possibly better trained than you are.

Therefore, it is important that we equip individuals with tools and options that can be called upon when the need arises.

Provide help – The final step is to take action.  The presence of others can be a factor here, preventing an individual from helping.  Feelings of embarrassment or social awkwardness will impact on some people.  This ‘audience inhibition’ simply requires you to stand out from the crowd.  Just think of Matt’s orange trousers.  Be like Matt

A further clear barrier to providing help is when the risks are too great.  This may be when a person is faced with a violent situation.  A way to provide help is, simply to ask for help.  Again, practice makes perfect.  Start asking people for help in your life so when the time comes asking is that bit easier.

It is clear that the bystander effect has many negative outcomes for society.  People ignore others who are in danger, they even put themselves in danger.  The group can be a powerful influence on us.  Remember, be like Matt, stand out, step up and be that hero the world needs.  In a world of heroes there will always be hope.

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