The Bystander Effect

26 Mar

This post is not going to be on anything physical, but instead a psychological phenomenon called the ‘The Bystander Effect’.

It refers to situations in which an individual is unlikely (or less likely) to provide help or assistance to someone in need while there are other people around. Studies have shown that the probability of help someone will receive is inversely related to the number of bystanders.

Wikipedia provides a nice summary for the origin of research in to this effect (sourced below):

“The bystander effect was first demonstrated in the laboratory by John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968 after they became interested in the topic following the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. These researchers launched a series of experiments that resulted in one of the strongest and most replicable effects in social psychology. In a typical experiment, the participant is either alone or among a group of other participants or confederates. An emergency situation is then staged. The researchers then measure how long it takes the participants to act, and whether or not they intervene at all. These experiments have often found that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin. For example, Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment around a woman in distress in 1969. 70 percent of the people alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and gotten hurt, but when there were other people in the room only 40 percent offered help.

Source:  Meyers, David G. (2010). Social Psychology (10th Ed). New York: McGraw- Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-337066-8.

I first heard about this phenomenon a few years ago; it jogged my memory and I remembered when I had once experienced the bystander effect. I was driving a friend home at approximately 3pm, and on the way we passed a bus stop where there was a man waiting. He was wearing a hoodie and other baggy clothes that looked quite dirty, which was nothing unusual for the area it was in. About 45 minutes later during my trip home, I passed the same bus stop and the man was lying down on the bench. It seemed odd, because buses past that stop are frequent so he shouldn’t have had to wait long. There were also plenty of people walking past the stop. I went home and walked to a cafe near the bus stop to get a coffee. The man was still there. I decided that there were plenty of other people walking past, so if something was wrong someone would have done something about it. I went home and forgot about it. Later that evening I turned on the news to a camera-shot of the bus stop, with a news presenter saying that a man had overdosed and was rushed to hospital after he had been seen lying down at the stop for a couple of hours. He survived the incident, and was lucky that people living across the road from the bus stop noticed and called the emergency services.

I was of the mentality that there were plenty of people walking by and if the man really needed help, someone else would have helped out already.

In attempting to explain the bystander effect, scientists have come up with 3 steps that must occur to overcome it, and these are outlined below.


This step requires that the bystander notices the situation. With a limited number of people around, an individual is more likely to take note of what is occurring, whereas a large group of people in the area will draw an individual’s attention away from the situation.


This step can only occur after a bystander notices the situation. They need to interpret what is happening and decide whether it is an emergency situation or not. We often look at the reactions of people around us to help form our own interpretation of an incident. The problem is that everyone is looking around trying to make an interpretation, the fact that no one is moving means everyone stands there and figures it must be OK.

Taking Action:

This is where things can really fall apart, even if the first two steps have been overcome. Even if someone notices the situation and interprets it as an emergency, they must take action.  The thing is, people fall victim to the diffusion of responsibility, they think that others will step in and help, or that other people standing by might be more qualified to provide assistance. Whatever the reason, as a group, we fail to act.

Looking back on my account, I noticed the incident, interpreted it as nothing unusual and failed to act. 

After learning about this phenomenon, I have been able to act accordingly in similar situations. I was out shopping one day when I noticed an old lady lying on the ground. There were a few other people standing around but not really doing anything. I walked over and as I did, a few other people joined me. It turns out that the lady had had a fall and was a little dazed. It was hot out so we got her some water while someone phoned an ambulance.

Hopefully, you now have an understanding of what is going through your mind when you see a situation and are trying to make a decision on whether or not to act. Even just walking towards the situation could trigger others to do the same, in which case someone who may need help will get it.

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