Many people, including myself, have heard of the bystander effect. This is a very common term/theory in psychology that directly relate to applied social psychology. Millions of situations arise each day where someone needs help but those who jump to action are few and far between. I have recently finished watching a show on NBC titled Law & Order: SVU. Though the accounts on this show are fictional (as mentioned at the beginning and end of each episode) they hold some truth to them. I often find myself when watching feeling disgusted with the situation and how no one has been scripted to help the victim. How could you watch someone be raped in the street? How could you watch people beat up a person in a park? The answer is simple, yet complicated; The bystander effect.
Day and Marion define the bystander effect as “people are less likely to help in an emergency situation when other people are present” (2012). In other words, the more people around, the less help you will be likely to receive. How is this even possible? You would assume that with more people around there will be someone to help you. The word to pay most attention to is to ‘assume’. You as the victim assume that someone or anyone will help you but those people are also assuming that someone else will help. This is also known in psychology as diffusion of responsibility. So the more people that are around the less people feel responsible for that is happening.
An article published by Kendra Cherry (2016) states we act in ways “…to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate” (Cherry, 2016). Why is it so important for us to act in accordance with society and what other people are doing? One idea is that it in ingrained in our brain through years of evolution. It is important to be a part of something bigger than yourself and you want to be like everyone else. It is not common for someone to want to stand out and be different. Many may wonder how the bystander effect can be a biological occurrence.
Take for example, this study done by Maria Plötner of the Max Planck conducted a study on 60 5-year-old children were told to color a picture while an adult painted a cardboard wall. Sometimes the kid was alone with the painting adult, and sometimes there were a couple of other kids painting with them who were actually confederates of the experimenter but they’d been told not to talk or to reveal anything about the role they were playing. After the coloring session started, the experimenter knocked over a cup, spilling colored water on her table, and made a series of carefully timed pleas (to make sure the experiment was similar during each run-through) to try to attract the kid’s attention and get him or her to help by bringing over some paper towels. As theory would predict, the children coloring alone were most likely to help the adult (almost all did) but with other children in the room only half made an effort to help (Singal, 2015).
Though there is no concrete evidence as to why the bystander effect occurs or where it begins, many believe that in a large group people assume that someone else is better suited to help rather than them. Therefore, no one makes the effort to help. But there is something you can do to help. As much as we would all like to say ‘if someone were in trouble I would help no matter what’ this is untrue. Most people would not help though they claimed they would. As a victim you can deliberate responsibility by giving direct orders to specific people. You can do this by saying their name followed by what you need them to do or even identify an article of their clothing. Even maintain eye contact with one person can make them feel more a part of the situation than they are and lessen the likelihood they will diffuse responsibility. Kendra Cherry finishes her article by saying “By personalizing and individualizing your request, it becomes much harder for people to turn you down” (Cherry, 2016).
Cherry, K. (2016, October 04). The Bystander Effect: Why Bystanders Sometimes Fail to Help. Retrieved from VeryWell: https://www.verywell.com/the-bystander-effect-2795899
Day, D. M., & Marion, S. B. (2012). Applying Social Psychology To The Criminal Justice System. In F. W. Schneider, J. A. Gruman, & L. M. Coutts, Applied Social Psychology (pp. 245-272). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Inc.
Singal, J. (2015, April 13). Researchers Found the ‘Bystander Effect’ in 5-Year-Olds. Retrieved from NYmag: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/04/bystander-effect-in-5-year-olds.html