Standing Up Instead of Standing By

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So why do we just “stand by” when we should be “standing up”? A phenomenon that has been one of the most researched, documented, and discussed in the social sciences is the bystander effect. It is also, seemingly, one of the most unfortunate of our human traits. The tragedy of Kitty Genovese, the woman who was stabbed in Queens, New York in 1964 while witnesses looked on, is probably one of the most famous incidents in social science and public media. (Schneider, 2012) Why do we have a sense of diffused responsibility? How and when do we become subject to this phenomenon?

Ironically, up until a few weeks ago, I had a tough time conceptualizing how and why this could happen, especially in an emergency. Could people really just stand by and watch someone who was hurt or needed help and do nothing? As I actively engaged in a business phone con during CPAC, where thousands of high profile individuals were gathered, a man ran up to me and said, “we need you, there is a medical emergency”.  Admittedly, I was little perplexed because I am not in the medical profession – by any stretch of the imagination, however I quickly got off the call and ran into a nearby restaurant after the man. I quickly assessed the situation and took in the circle of onlookers staring at a woman lying on the ground, convulsing. Security officers were instructing people to “back up” and “not go near her” – I was in utter disbelief. Despite being in high heels and a dress I flew, very ungracefully, to the ground and started administering first aid and barking instructions to a near by friend. I worked on the lady for nearly 15 minutes and had her stabilized before EMTs even arrived. Thanks to those who were able to assist, she was evaluated and ended up being okay. In that moment it was hard not to make the connection to this course and I was fascinated that the terms that jump out at us in bold face in Schneider’s Chaper 11 text, entitled, “Applying Social Psychology to the Criminal Justice System,” seemingly came to life in that moment. When I pressed the security officers as to the reasoning behind their seemingly horrific response, they stated that they were not trained in any level of first response, and they had been trained to do nothing and call 911.  Baffled, I understood why they demonstrated such a diffusion of responsibility and directed others to do the same, directing them not to even intervene. The crowd that had significant interest in what was going on, but did nothing were comprised of some of our Nations’ most educated, well-known leaders and prominent business men/women – they all had an interest and want to know what was going on, I would even argue that most probably wanted to help, but did nothing (with the exception for the man who through overhearing a conversation knew I was a Marine and was told by someone who knew me to run and get me).  It is compelling to witness such a phenomena first hand.  Obviously this was not a criminal example, but equally compelling. I walked away in utter disbelief.

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More disturbing is the frequency such real-world examples occur, but in criminally-related instances – where someone is being brutally beaten, hurt, abused, killed. Why do people choose to act out against others and why do others choose not to intervene or help? The Social Learning Theory strives to help us understand. Bandura’s theory delves into the reasoning explaining that behind acts of criminal activity are behaviors, which represent what an individual has learned and how they develop throughout interactions and experiences during life in social environments. (Schneider, 2012) But when and why do we, in the face of humanity, not intervene?

Jesse Singal recently published an article, “Researchers Found the ‘Bystander Effect’ in 5-Year-Olds” which clearly describes to us “WHY” the bystander effect occurs. The diffusion of responsibility, as previously mentioned, is “the lack of a sense that it is any one person’s job to step in, since there are others around who might do so: social referencing, which is the natural human tendency to look around to see how others are acting and shape one’s own actions accordingly; and simply shyness at standing out form a passive crowd.” (Singal, 2015) The crux of the article was focused on the bystander effect and children, when or what drives the bystander effect within us? It is interesting to contemplate this phenomenon, how we as humans become susceptible to such an unfortunate tendency and how we should design and/or develop interventions, which promote helpfulness in such situations during early stages of development. (Singal, 2015)

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How would you respond? Would you join the bystanders and stand by or would you stand up if you were witness in a situation where someone needed help?

Works Cited:

Singal, J. (2015, April 13). Researchers Found the ‘Bystander Effect’ in 5-Year-Olds. Retrieved April 18, 2015, from

Schneider, F. (2012). Applying Social Psychology to the Criminal Justice System. In Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems (2nd ed., pp. 245-272). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

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