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When it comes to bystander intervention, fear is the biggest inhibitor.

Since the start of 2022 I’ve delivered active bystander-ship training to many hundreds of people.  Starting in Ashford, Kent, I found myself travelling, albeit virtually travelled across Cornwall, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Isle of White, Belfast, to London, and then back to Kent. 

I sensed curiosity from the outset.  I always asked people “Why are you here?”.  I was often faced with “I want to learn more” or “I want to help”.  I also found that a lot of ‘moral trauma’ was present.  What I mean here is the pain we feel as individuals when we fail to help another person. 

It became clear to me that an asset, that is often the first to notice stuff, isn’t being engaged in ways that help them to be good friends, work colleagues and neighbours.  If you are a person involved in prevention, activate your bystanders, they are there and they are willing.  They just need some help.  As a former police officer, I learned about the power of community.  Prevention starts in a community.

Who is harmed in your community when we fail to see active bystanders?  Notice my use of the term active bystander.  I use another – passive bystander.  I don’t change the terms I keep them so to follow the 50 years of social science research that says we can train people to be active bystanders.  You are never neutral, you are passive, doing nothing or active, doing something.  Also, the question itself is important.  Active Bystander-ship is the ‘art and science of reducing harm’.  So, who is harmed?

Responses to this question often include ‘Everyone’.  Whilst this is correct, we need to break this down.  Why?  It’s in these subtle questions that we can build empathy which we know helps to motivate people to act.  In my view everyone includes the following:

Victims – Put yourself in the shoes of a victim of bullying or harassment who sees passive bystanders doing nothing.  Their trauma will be compounded, they are likely to self-blame resulting in a less productive educational or workplace productivity.

Other Bystanders – When individuals fail to see bystanders intervening mistrust builds.  Also, we know that a lack of role modelling leads to a lack of efficacy which can motivate people to intervene.

Communities – When no one acts various harms occur within communities.  Victimisation is clearly an issue but also lack of role modelling continues to occur.

Harm doers – This might sound strange however I feel its worth a mention.  We have friends and colleagues who often fail to realise that what they are doing is harmful.  Could a lack of intervention lead to loss of employment or other harm?  Evidence suggests that passively toxic individuals can be influenced by the pro-social actions of others.

Imagine that you’re walking on the street and see a man verbally harassing a woman.  What would you, just a passer-by, do?  That question — about the ethical responsibility to help a stranger in distress and the dynamics that prevent people from acting — has been the focus of research for decades.  However, the research seldom forms part of any response when seeking to engage individuals as active bystanders.

When I’ve asked why people don’t intervene, it’s fear that comes top all the time. For me it’s one of the main reasons people don’t intervene.  From the outside it’s too easy to say ‘Oh you’re a coward’ but the fear of physical retribution can be paralysing.  My recent trainings identified that for most people intervention meant stepping in and so the fear creeped in. 

Helping people build their toolkits is key.  If individuals continue to see stepping in as the only way to intervene most people will continue to be passive.

The factors that inhibit bystander action are quite different depending on whether people know each other or not.

Many people do not want to get involved in situations of potential harassment or violence in which they don’t know the parties involved, largely out of fear of putting themselves at physicarisk. Social psychologists use the term bystander effect to describe the ways in which people avoid taking action; for example, as members of a crowd, they might be waiting, or hoping, for someone else to jump in.

By contrast, in incidents where the bystanders know the people—such as members of their own personal or workplace peer culture—their hesitancy to get involved is typically based on social fear. They worry that intervening will be awkward and could result in the loss of friendships, social status, or professional standing.  This is particularly the case when we talk about boys and men.

Some men hesitate to intervene when they see a friend, or colleague behaving inappropriately or abusively not because they approve of the behaviour, but because they lack the language, skills and most importantly, the self-confidence to speak up.  It’s the fear of the intervention not being well received that puts many men off

The pressures on men can be intense. Sometimes remaining silent even when you know you should say something is the cost of membership in the club.

So, if its fear that stops people intervening what can we do to help people overcome this?

  1.  Create the space for conversation – Let’s start with the obvious.  When you rely on a campaign or a poster to activate bystanders you fail to provide the reassurance that others support the need for intervention.  Bystanders are more likely to act when they feel others will help.  The efforts in creating conversations lead to the next area that helps people intervene.
  2. Engage allies – When you find your friends you feel more able to act.  Safety in numbers is key.
  3. A believe that you can make a difference – When people know they can help they are more likely to intervene.  I have plenty of examples where one person acting can lead to others helping.  I share these examples.  In many ways action breed’s action.  Past research from likes of Ervin Staub makes this clear.
  4. Strategies and tools – Providing a form of toolkit is important and connects with point Self-efficacy is key.  When you know what to do you are more likely to act.  By the way when you provide these new tools you need to make space for practice.  Again, campaigns and posters are good but unless you provide space for practice, people will still lack the confidence needed.  I like how US Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo describes this as the ‘Heroic Imagination’. The ability to practice and rehearse intervention.
  5. Sweat the small stuff – A few years ago I started to look at violence differently and began to see violence as more as a behaviour or an attitude.  So, for me violence starts with words.  By the way I don’t see verbal abuse as small, but society does.  For me it’s a starting point.  It’s where many forms of abuse start.  When we start to think in this way we can start to notice earlier and safer points for bystanders to intervene
  6. Build empathy – I spend a lot of my time making violence personal.  I talk about how it’s impacted my friends and family.  I talk about how it has impacted me.  Empathy is a key driver that helps people find a reason to act.

I’ve talked a lot about the limits of fancy slogans and campaigns.  Don’t get me wrong they provide a starting point for prevention.  If we rely solely on messages, we fail victims and the bystanders who often suffer moral trauma when they don’t intervene. 

Violence continues to devastate both individuals and communities.  We know that abuse will evolve and continue until we see interruption.  Active bystanders play an important role in providing this interruption.  So my question to anyone involved in preventing school bullying, addressing workplace harassment, even preventing police misconduct – what are you doing to activate your bystanders?

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