Call 911! Not Me Though, Someone Else!

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:

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:



1 comment

  1. Hello,

    I really enjoyed your blog post and thought you made some fascinating points regarding the impacts of the bystander effect and how diffusion of responsibility factors in as well. I remember in my previous social psychology class also learning about how it is important to clearly identify someone when in need of help in a large crowd. I thought your points about how we want to fit in for evolutionary reasons were also very fair. It made me think about different normative influences, and even “in group” or “out group” biases when in the position to help someone. For example, if someone held a strong prejudice against people of color and was in the situation of witnessing someone of color needing help while surrounded by many people, how much more likely or unlikely is that person to help? This pattern could be noted across political lines, religious lines or any other instance where implicit prejudices or stereotypes may also increase the probability that someone needing help may not receive it.

    As the book further articulates, I think deindividuation is something that is important too. It makes complete sense that if someone were in a large crowd, similar to those around them ,and witnesses someone needing help, they wouldn’t make the first move. Even in the classroom, I can remember countless times that teachers would say to the class, “if people stop volunteering I am going to start calling on people randomly to participate.” After an announcement like this was made, still nobody would sacrifice himself or herself for the good of the group; instead, we would all continue to wait. This, in a sense, reminds me of fears of anticipatory embarrassment, something we learned back in chapter five of our book. With the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility, I think the worry of looking weird or different, and potentially being judged, is a huge contributing factor in why people may not help even thought they want to. Lastly, this issue also reminds me of different social dilemmas discussed within our text because the choices that people are making to avoid helping someone more than likely are saving them time, resources and worry by dismissing its importance and letting someone else “deal with it.” On the other hand, if someone is aware that they “missed an opportunity to help” later, they may actually end up feeling guilty and having conflicting feelings about how they acted previously. This is a very interesting topic and one that I hope to learn more about as my psychology career continues. Great post!!!


    Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2012). Applied Social Psychology (Second ed., pp. 325-333). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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