THE BYSTANDER EFFECT

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You are driving down the road and see a three car accident that has just occurred....what do you do?  Stop or keep driving while trying to get a betth_0_imagenewssectionRBS.jpgter look at the wreckage?  A few years ago I was heading to a local cafe to enjoy lunch with a few friends when out of the corner of my eye I see this deer heading right for the two lane busy highway I was driving on.  Then splat......this poor unsuspecting guy on a motorcycle going around 50 miles per hour hit the deer that ran right in-front of him head on.  It was as if I was watching the whole thing in slow motion.  He flies over the bike and hits the ground like a doll and skidded down the macadam for what seemed like 100 feet.  I pulled over immediately and called 911, I was pretty far past where he landed and in my rearview I could see that others were stopped and getting out to help the guy.  After I finished talking with the 911 dispatcher I drove off, met my friends for lunch and went on with my business.  Should I have gotten out as well? Why didn't I if I was the first car to see it happen? My reasoning ....... All of those other people were helping him and I would just get in the way.  I called 911 so I did what I needed to do, right???  

About a month ago I was driving on route 78 heading to the Lehigh valley.  I happened to notice a state trooper pulled over looking at couple of drums which appeared to contain some-type of hazardous material, given that they had placards on them.  Having worked in the environmental field I figured either someone dumped them or they fell off a truck.  I thought, 'good luck trying to find who they belong to, they most likely are in a different state by now.'  I traveled another five miles and I actually saw the truck pulled over carrying more of the same type of drums and I thought about calling the state troopers to let them know where the truck was pulled over. But I didn't...... I figured the Trooper would find him or someone else would, so why should I get involved. Heck there are tons of cars behind me,  they must have seen the trooper and now see the truck and they will call.  I just didn't want to get involved, so ............. I didn't.

Why in one situation did I call and the other I didn't?  Was I experiencing a diffusion of responsibility (i.e., the diminished sense of responsibility a person feels when he or she believes that other would or should intervene), which is more likely to occur when a bystander can remain anonymous (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005).  No one was going to notice that I even saw the trooper, the drums and then the driver, hence I'm not responsible, right?.  "I didn't want to get involved," is a familiar comment, and behind it lays fears of physical harm, public embarrassment, involvement with police procedures, lost work days and jobs, and other unknown dangers (Darley & Latane, 1968).  This is exactly how I felt. The worst part is I know I should have done something.  My husband hates when I use him as an example but he is much worse and often experiences both the bystander effect and a diffusion of responsibility.    This leads us to our current sad and heartbreaking Penn State situation.  Did Joe Paterno suffer from the bystander effect or diffusion of responsibility or both?

            The bystander effect states that people are less likely to help in an emergency when other bystanders are present (Schneider, Gruman & Coutts, 2005).    I think it's important to state that I don't know all the facts, only what the media has put out. Lets 'assume' (you know what that spells) that Joe was told that Sandusky was showering with a young boy in the Penn State locker room.  Joe didn't immediately run to the locker room and stop it, he didn't call the police or, as I would have done, found Sandusky and punch him in his face (I know I have aggression issues).  My point is that there were many options, but Joe chose to tell another PSU administrator who apparently didn't do anything. Were they experiencing diffusion of responsibility? The diffusion of responsibility hypothesis states that an individual member of a group feels less personal  responsibility for potential failure in the pursuit of risky options than he or she would feel if acting alone (Mynatt & Sherman, 1975).  What were the social norms these men were following?  Social norms are specific to particular groups, as each group creates its own standards for what attitudes or behaviors are acceptable and desirable (Chekroun & Brauer, 2002).  It appears that a number of Penn State officials felt that this act committed by Sandusky wasn't so horrid an act as to need police intervention.  I am simply dumbfounded that there wasn't one whistle blower so disgusted by this act(s) that they were willing to lose their job to save their moral fiber.  Those who engage in deviant behaviors are often victims of negative sanctions by other group members, who exert pressure in order to obtain conformity (Schachter, 1951).   The bond between these individuals must have been so powerful that everyone turned a blind eye to it and let it continue.   
bystander effect image.jpg
            I am sure all these men involved, who failed to act, are now struggling with their own demons and will for the rest of their lives.  We all, at times, fall prey to the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility.  But as Voltaire said "Every man is guilty of all the good he didn't do".  




References

Chekroun, P., & Brauer, M. (2002). The bystander effect and social control behavior: the effect of the presence of others on people's reactions to norm violations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32(6), 853-867. doi:10.1002/ejsp.126

Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 377-383. doi:10.1037//h0025589

Mynatt, C., & Sherman. S.J. (1975). Responsibility attribution in groups and individuals: A direct test of the diffusion of responsibility hypothesis.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 22 (6), 1111-1118.


Schachter, S. (1951). Deviation, rejection, and communication. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 46, 190-207.

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2005). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. London: Sage.


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5 Comments

Why did you choose to help in one situation more than the other? You probably felt the true bystander effect on the instance with the hazardous barrels. The first instance it happened directly in front of you. But in the second story the incident already happened so you felt less responsibility to report it since the state trooper had already seen the incident and was already taking care of it.

But in the instance with Joe I think a little bit of loyalty might have been the issue along with diffusion of responsibly. He might have assumed the his partner would do the right thing. But we can never be exactly sure.

I think in the instance of the motorcycle accident you called because you knew that the man needed an ambulance. In the future, if you see an accident take place it is best to stick aroundsince you witnessed it and there may be questions that need answered by the police. As for all the other people who were helping him, they saw him but they may not have seen the actual accident.
As for the 2nd incident with the truck, even though they were the same types of barrels, it could have been a completely different truck. Calling and reporting something that you are not sure of is risky because it could be false evidence. I don't think I would have called either since nobody was in clear or present danger or it could have been the diffusion of responsibility since you were able to remain in your car and stay completely anonymous. If you would have encountered the state trooper after you had seen the truck and the trooper asked you if you saw anything then you would have had to tell him the information that you had about the situation. The right thing to do was probably to call, but, honestly I don't think I would have gotten involved either.

I think in the instance of the motorcycle accident you called because you knew that the man needed an ambulance. In the future, if you see an accident take place it is best to stick aroundsince you witnessed it and there may be questions that need answered by the police. As for all the other people who were helping him, they saw him but they may not have seen the actual accident.
As for the 2nd incident with the truck, even though they were the same types of barrels, it could have been a completely different truck. Calling and reporting something that you are not sure of is risky because it could be false evidence. I don't think I would have called either since nobody was in clear or present danger or it could have been the diffusion of responsibility since you were able to remain in your car and stay completely anonymous. If you would have encountered the state trooper after you had seen the truck and the trooper asked you if you saw anything then you would have had to tell him the information that you had about the situation. The right thing to do was probably to call, but, honestly I don't think I would have gotten involved either.

It is easy for us to justify why we do anything. The bystander effect is just another one of those moral justifications. You are very aware of and still question what you should/shouldn't have done, which leads me to this question: why don't we go with our gut feeling when we experience situations like this? Don't get me wrong, it's easy to overlook things, I am just as guilty as anyone for this!! My suggestion would be (and I am trying very hard to practice this myself) is to put yourself in the others' shoes. What would YOU want passerbys/bystanders to do for you? I think this would enable your gut instinct to turn into a reaction, and leave you feeling accomplished, without the questions "what if", or "why" lingering long after the event. Thanks for the insightful post!

I don’t think most of us understand why we react or don’t react to certain situations unless we are in the situation at that moment. I don’t think we can blame our morals or say we don’t care enough because I believe many people freeze up or are overwhelmed by fear when certain situations occur. Thinking about situations I’ve witnessed or got involved in, I can remember shaking with fear because I did not want to be harmed or have to worry about being pulled into a situation that requires me to testify at court hearings. Overall, I do think for most people the reason for not helping is the fear for his or her safety, especially if the situation is unknown and it involves multiple people. I’ve always felt more comfortable calling the police to come to the scene to handle it because in today’s world you must be cautious of all the schemes, and not fall prey to someone’s vicious act. I think its good to be skeptical sometimes because there are individuals who have ulterior motives and the situation you see might not be what it is. The person could have other intentions of harming you. I know I watch a lot of “lifetime movies” but you hear stories of this type of act happening in real life (especially to women who are alone). That’s another reason why I may be hesitant to help some people. Consequently, I often feel bad or guilty and say to myself “what if that was me?” I would want someone to stop and help me!

The bystander effect happens all the time; probably in more cases than we want to believe. There is a terrible story of a dangerous situation that occurred few months ago in Philadelphia. Please take a look…it’s exactly what we are talking about.

http://thedp.com/index.php/article/2012/01/brian_goldman_flashback_to_a_flashmob

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