Bystander Effects in our Community

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How many times does the bystander effect happen in our society?  Timothy Hart and Ternace Miethe used data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) and found that a bystander was present in 65 percent of the violent victimization's in the data. Their presence was most common in cases of physical assaults (68%), which accounted for the majority of these violent victimization's and less likely in robberies (49%) and sexual assaults (28%). The actions of bystanders were most frequently judged by victims as "neither helping nor hurting" (48%), followed by "helping" (37%), "hurting" (10%), and "both helping and hurting" (3%). Half of the attacks that a bystander was present at occurred in the evening and the victim and bystander were strangers (Miethe, 2008). 

How many times have you driven past an accident or witnessed adolescents fighting at a school?  If you are like most people this has happened at least a couple times in your life, and at least on one occasion; especially if you were in a hurry you fell into the bystander nonintervention which occurs when multiple people witness an emergency situation and don't intervene because they shift the diffusion of responsibility to someone else, they feel that the other observes will help (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005).  This can make the individual that didn't offer help feel like they won't be blamed for not offering help because they weren't the only observer of the situation.    

There are, in fact, many reasons why bystanders in groups fail to act in emergency situations, but social psychologists have focused most of their attention on two major factors. According to a basic principle of social influence, bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (nothing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. This is an example of pluralistic ignorance or social proof. The other major obstacle to intervention is known as diffusion of responsibility. This occurs when observers all assume that someone else is going to intervene and so each individual feels less responsible and refrains from doing anything (Levine, Mark, Thompson & Kirstien, 2004).  So from or text book and the article in Journal of Social Psychology, diffusion of responsibility is a major obstacle in the bystander effect; as we can see.

Lance Shotland and Margaret Straw (1976) also found that people's interpretations affect their reactions to street crime. When witnessing a man and a woman fighting, bystanders intervened 65 percent of the time when the woman yelled "Get away from me; I don't know you," but only 19 percent of the time when the woman yelled "Get away from me; I don't know why I ever married you" (Meyers, 2010).

There are other reasons why people may not help. They may assume that other bystanders are more qualified to help, such as doctors or police officers, and that their intervention would be unneeded. People may also experience evaluation apprehension and fear losing face in front of the other bystanders. They may also be afraid of being superseded by a superior helper, offering unwanted assistance, or facing the legal consequences of offering inferior and possibly dangerous assistance. An example is the limitation of California's Good Samaritan Law, limiting liability for those attempting to provide medical services as opposed to non-medical (extraction from automobile) services (California Supreme Court Case, n.d.).

Children can be bystanders too. A study conducted by Robert Thornberg in 2007 came up with seven reasons why children do not help when another classmate is in distress. These include: trivialization, dissociation, embarrassment association, busy working priority, compliance with a competitive norm, audience modeling, and responsibility transfer (Thornberg, 2007).

The bystander effect can be powerful; lives have been lost because of individual's lack of wanting to help or intervene in an emergency situation.  I think this is a problem that requires attention, because too many lives have been destroyed by an accident, assault, rape or robbery, and maybe they could have been prevented if someone would have just helped.  I think more information needs to be made public on the issue of the bystander effect and make people aware of what a simple phone call to 911 could actually do for someone in need, you can't just hope that someone else is going to make that call, it only takes 5 minutes of your time and that 5 minutes could save someone's life, wouldn't you want someone to do the same for you? I know I would.




 Article and references to California Supreme Court Case, see: "California's Good Samaritan Law". HealthLawProf Blog. January 4, 2009.

Hart, T.; Miethe, T. (2008). "Exploring Bystander Presence and Intervention in Nonfatal Violent Victimization: When Does Helping Really Help?" Violence and Victims 23 (5): 637-651.

Levine, Mark & Thompson, Kirstien (2004). "Identity, place, and bystander intervention: social categories and helping after natural disasters". Journal of Social Psychology 144 (3): 229-245. doi:10.3200/SOCP.144.3.229-245.

Meyers, David G. (2010). Social Psychology (10th Ed). New York: McGraw- Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-337066-8.

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2005). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN 978-1412915397

 Thornberg, R (2007). "A classmate in distress: schoolchildren as bystanders and their reasons for how they act." Social Psychology of Education 10: 5-28.

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1 Comment

You’ve gave a great explanation as to why people do not help. There are some other situational determinants of when prosocial behavior occurs or does not occur that can be considered. In one study, it was found that about 50% of individuals who came upon an injured man in a small town stopped and offered to help. However, when this was staged in a large city, only 15% of the individuals passing by stopped to offer help tom the injured man (Amato, 1983). Various other studies have found additional types of prosocial behavior such as giving direction or helping to find a lost child is also more likely to occur in small towns rather than large cities.

It may be possible that in small towns people are more likely to help an injured person simply because they actually know more people and therefore more likely to encounter someone they know. Individuals want to be viewed favorably by their peers so they will be more inclined to exhibit helping behaviors. Another potential reason for exhibiting more prosocial behavior in a small town may be that individuals that grow up in a small town are more likely to develop internalized altruistic values that include helping. Milgram (1970) presented a different hypothesis for lack of prosocial behavior in large cities. He thought perhaps it was not the individual’s intrinsic values but the surroundings. In his urban overload hypothesis he proposed that people living in large cities keep to themselves more because they are overwhelmed by the amount of stimulation. He posits that if urban dwellers are in calmer, quieter surroundings they will be as likely as small town dwellers to exhibit prosocial behavior. Further research has supported this hypothesis.

I feel extremely blessed and fortunate to reside in one of those small towns where people will not only help me when I fall, they will then take the time to let all the neighbors about it.


Amato, P., R., (1983). Helping behavior in urban and rural environments: Field studies based on a taxonomic organization of helping episodes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45, 571-586.

Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science, 167, 1461-1468.

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