What Kind of Bystander are You?

We go through our daily lives on autopilot most of the time.  Our alarms are cut off without a thought, driving to work we probably couldn’t remember what kind of car was in front of us or even if we were stopped at a stoplight, our meetings at work or phone calls we take are only memorable out of necessity.  We are stimulated from the time we wake up until the time we lay down at night and then even at night our brains work hard to shut off.  But why are we so stimulated?  Is it the amount of responsibility we take on as an individual? Or is it our environment?  Are those of us that live in big cities more likely to become victims of stimulus overload to the point that we become almost desensitized? Once we become desensitized, we begin to miss things that normally we would give a second thought or look to.

One example of stimulus overload to the point of desensitization is a phenomenon known as the bystander effect.  According to Schneider (2013), bystander effect occurs when multiple people who witness an emergency situation fail to intervene.  From a social psychological perspective, this occurs when people that witness an event do not react because they believe that others will intervene on their behalf.  It works kind of like the cliché attitude of “not my problem”.  Studies have shown that people are more likely to intervene in a situation when they are the only bystander as opposed to being one of many bystanders.  When this occurs it is known as diffusion of responsibility (Schneider et al., 2013).

In an effort to understand the bystander effect better, a reporter for the online magazine Salon, Will Doig interviewed several psychologists.

“For more than 50 years, ‘urban psychologists’ have been faking seizures, dropping cash and breaking into cars in broad daylight to see if strangers would intervene,” ……“They’ve discovered two things. One is that people in rural areas do indeed get involved more readily than urbanites. But they’ve also concluded that this has very little to do with morality.”

After reviewing one experiment where the researcher attempted to steal their own bike, the psychologists concluded that there wasn’t a lot of intervention because people didn’t notice what was going on.  This is interesting.  Are we really so busy that we do not or cannot notice what is going on around us?  Some also concluded that they didn’t intervene because they didn’t know what to do.  And, finally some concluded that fear was a factor.

Several things are mentioned – fear, uncertainty and overlooking surroundings. All sound like pretty solid reasons why one would not intervene.  The question now is how do you get someone to intervene when you are not the bystander? One theory is to call out for help, be specific and identify the passerby in detail such as “You in the striped shirt! Help me, there is a fire!” or something similar.

We are never too busy to help someone in need.  Being more aware of your surroundings makes you more vigilant when you’re out alone, helping someone in need establishes a sense of community, and it can make you feel overall better about yourself knowing you helped someone in need.

Counter the bystander effect.


Big cities, bike theft and the ‘bystander effect’ (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2016, from https://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2012/03/big-cities-bike-theft-and-bystander-effect


Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Los Angeles: Sage.

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