The Bystander Effect: How and Why we do nothing


The Bystander Effect is when we don’t offer help, or we are less likely to offer help, to when other people are present. Studies have shown that individually up to 70% of people will assist, but as a group under 40% of us will.

Everyone has been a bystander at some point of their lives. For a close to life example, think of school. Did you always stand up to a bully? Did you not talk to someone because a friend didn’t like them?

Why do we do this?

There are a few reasons:

Diffusion of responsibility. When there are a number of people present, people often assume others will do it for them (hello the dish clean up after Christmas lunch). Particularly in a post conflict environment, there is a hierarchy to dealing with issues that is generally quite trusted to dealing with issues. This is the police, local and state government, and councils.

The other is a sense of social responsibility. In a lot of emergency cases, it can be difficult to work out what is happening, which is why sometimes people won’t assist as they haven’t worked out how to help. This is then compounded by someone next to you, also not sure what to do.

When other people fail to act, we follow their lead, resulting people not taking action as the person next to them isn’t. People are wired for cooperation – people follow the herd, which is blunt and unattractive commentary but true. Individually, people are heroes usually, but put us together and we follow the person next to us.

How can we fix this?

Verywell has a useful suggestion – in times of emergency, make eye contact with one person, and ask for help. Say ‘hey you, in the red shirt’. This will individualise the circumstance again, and should stop diffusion of responsibility.

If one person stands up, other people begin to follow, thereby reducing the impact of the bystander effect.

Furtherlinks: ‘Breaking the bystander effect and saving lives’ – ABC News Australia 

The Cool Psychologist – Youtube Video on the Bystander Effect

Until next time, Emma.


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