The Bystander Effect and Sexual Assault

The Bystander effect is when a crowd of people view an emergency situation but do not intervene (Schnieder, 2012.) The bystander effect became well known after an incident occured in New York City. In 1964 a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death while many bystanders did not help her or call the police(“Psychology Today”). Unfortunately this still occurs over 50 years later. College campuses are creating programs to inform students of the bystander effect in sexual assault situations. Also researchers are discovering the best ways to inform students of this information.

Sexual assault is one of the many incidents that can have a bystander effect. Sexual assault continues to be a problem on college campuses. The statistics of sexual assault on college campuses is shocking, “ as many as 88% of women report at least one incident of sexual or physical victimization by the time they graduate” (DeMaria et al., 2015).College campuses are making an effort to help combat these incidents. Penn State has implemented workshops, videos,and many other activities to make the campus aware of sexual assault. These resources can be found at the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response. The website is and the 24 hour hotline is 1-800-560-1637.

A study conducted in 2015 evaluated a way to design a bystander intervention campaign directed at sexual assault(DeMaria et al., 2015). The study consisted of 69 men and women between the ages of 18 and 24. Six themes were found from this study, “ (a) female participants’ experiences of sexism and misogyny, (b) the myth that rape is falsely reported, (c complex understanding of consent and entitlement, (d) the reluctance to stop some from having a ‘good time’, (e) the role of alcohol as a moderating factor in sexual misconduct and bystander intervention and (f) preference for direct and impactful messaging”(DeMaria et al., 2015).Gathering this data from participants has helped researchers create a campaign that is based on the perceptions and experiences of college students. Furthermore this type of study can be used in multiple areas to help create an awareness of the bystander effect.


Schneider, F. W. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Second Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Bystander Effect. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2018, from

Prevention. (2017, October 11). Retrieved from

DeMaria, A. L., Sundstrom, B., Grzejdziak, M., Booth, K., Adams, H., Gabel, C., & Cabot, J. (2015). It’s Not My Place: Formative Evaluation Research to Design a Bystander Intervention Campaign. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(3), 468-490. doi:10.1177/0886260515608804

1 comment

  1. Bystander effect is definitely high in sexual assault cases as often times the situation is ambiguous and happens in settings where the bystanders may be intoxicated, e.g. parties or frat houses. This was the case in Dr. Ford’s testimony. Guests who were at the party with Dr. Ford either failed to notice the incident or have no recollection of the event (Kettrey & Marx, 2018). In an ambiguous emergency situation, bystanders tend to calculate their cost associated with helping vs. not helping. Bystanders then refer to the three social psychological processes, audience inhibition, social influence, and diffusion of responsibility (Latane & Nida, 1981). In the first process, audience inhibition, bystanders have to evaluate the risk of embarrassment if they read the situation wrongly (Latane & Nida, 1981). In a sexual assault situation, often times it is not apparent, especially in the intoxicated eyes of the bystanders. The second process, social influence, is when bystanders look for others to help define the situation. In sexual assault, especially when it occurs in a party setting, it’s very ambiguous and often results in inaction; thus, bystanders interpret the situation as not critical (Latane & Nida, 1981). The third process, diffusion of responsibility, is when people assume that others are available to help; thus, shifting their own responsibility to others (Latane and Nida (1981). In a sexual assault situation, diffusion of responsibility is the most likely as the situation is ambiguous and tricky. Kats and Moore’s (2013) study shows results from 12 studies that bystander education training on campus sexual assault only generates a moderate effect on bystander efficacy and intentions to help. It is disheartening to know that despite training and knowledge people still tend to not help others in a sexual assault situation.


    Katz, J., & Moore, J. (2013). Bystander Education Training for Campus Sexual Assault Prevention: An Initial Meta-Analysis. Violence and Victims, 28(6), 1054–1067. doi: 10.1891/0886-6708.vv-d-12-00113
    Kettrey, H. H., & Marx, R. (2018, December 19). ‘Bystander effect’ and sexual assault: What the research says. Retrieved November 8, 2019, from
    Latané, B., & Nida, S. (1981). Ten years of research on group size and helping. Psychological Bulletin, 89(2), 308-324. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.89.2.308

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