Elaine Chong’s column: The bystander effect prevents us from helping those in need – But becoming aware of it might help

Would you stop to help? If more people knew about the bystander effect it could make a difference in society, writes journalist Elaine Chong.



K:Kuvat: Ian Wallman

Henkilökuva kolumnin kirjoittajasta Elaine Chongista

I was having a nosebleed on the bus in London. Nosebleeds happen often for me, so I always carry tissues. Having a nosebleed in public can be a bit embarrassing, especially in front of so many other passengers. But on that day, no one was looking at me. Instead everyone was distracted by the 12-year-old boys sitting behind the driver, writing rude words into the condensation on the window.

They were loud, laughing raucously at their pre-pubescent wit. They climbed on the poles and stamped their shoes into the material of the seats. Amongst the other passengers you could feel the atmosphere heavy with consternation, but no one said anything.

When you see something antisocial happening near you, a dilemma springs to mind: should I do something?

The question might be followed by a series of reasons justifying why you shouldn’t. Could this be dangerous for me? Maybe someone else can do it? Isn’t there someone in charge here? Is this even a big enough problem to bother with?

The boys were annoying, but there wasn’t a distressed victim in this situation. The windows literally and figuratively got dirtier, the boys got more boisterous, and the bus driver continued to drive.

Isn’t there someone in charge here? Is this even a big enough problem to bother with?

The bystander effect is the phenomenon where the greater number of people are present, the less likely people are to intervene in an anti-social situation. The most frequently cited case is Kitty Genovese, who was brutally murdered in 1964, Queens, New York. Witnesses say the attack started at 3.20am and Genovese was shouting for help. Newspapers reported that neighbours looked on, or heard fighting from their apartments. But it was 3.50am when someone first called emergency services. People didn’t intervene until it was too late. Why?

In the 1970’s psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley found in their studies that when people feel there are other witnesses, this creates a ‘diffusion of responsibility’. There is less pressure on individuals to do something, as the responsibility is felt to be shared among those present. Furthermore, when other people don’t react, this signals to individuals that the situation must not be an emergency, therefore action is not needed.

In Latané and Darley’s experiments, they found that if a subject was the sole bystander, they would step in to help. But in a group of five bystanders, only 62 % intervened. Other psychologists followed up with their own studies: testing bystanders with serious accidents, cyberbullying, and running the tests with children. The results remained the same: people were reluctant to help in groups.

Reports of the bystander effect are found when the worst case scenario of violence or death has already passed. People want to know: ‘well, why didn’t someone do something?’

The inquiry into the 2017 Manchester Arena bombings found that a father collecting his daughter saw something suspicious. The father reported the would-be terrorist, standing in a CCTV blind spot with a large rucksack, but was ‘fobbed off’ by a security steward. The judge in the inquiry remarked it was ‘distressing that no effective steps were taken’ to act on the father’s concerns.

Here is an example of bystander intervention, but it wasn’t enough because someone else decided not to follow up. There is a ripple effect in not taking any action. Imagine rings of water moving away from the action, even further away the impact will still be felt – everyone has a part to play.

Reports of the bystander effect are found when the worst case scenario of violence or death has already passed.

How can we overcome the bystander effect?

Eemeli Hakoköngäs, lecturer in social psychology at the University of Eastern Finland suggests that becoming aware of this phenomenon may help us to reconsider our first impression of a possible emergency situation – breaking this cycle of inaction.

”We can try to increase the likelihood of helping if we can increase people’s knowledge on how to behave when recognising a situation correctly, from ‘I feel something is wrong’ to ‘I can call an emergency number.’”

Bystanders can weigh up what they are able to do, whether it’s offering first aid skills, talking to de-escalate an argument, or resources like providing something warm to wear.

Back on the bus, I clutched my bloody tissues to my chest. Trying to impress his friends, one of the boys wrote on the cloudy window, and they burst out laughing all over again. The boy had chosen the nuclear option of Viking swear words, the famous misogynistic one. This was the line that was crossed for me.

I got up, approaching the front of the bus holding my resources. The boys started to jeer at me. I vigorously wiped the window with my tissues, erasing the obscene words from the window. The other passengers cheered, the sun came out, and angels started to sing.

That didn’t happen of course. The boys got off the bus shortly after, completely unfazed. They had learned no lessons, and I was left with cold, wet tissues. Along with the driver and other passengers, we continued to our destinations as if nothing had occurred.

It’s true, nothing that bad happened on the bus. But if there’s an emergency, would you want nothing to happen too?