Post No.: 0237
The ‘bystander effect’ is when people are less likely to react to an emergency or offer help to a victim when people are as part of a crowd – because of a diffusion of responsibility, following the crowd and pluralistic ignorance (mistakenly thinking that no one else is thinking the same things as us). This seems counterintuitive but the more people there are in a crowd, the less likely it’ll be that any given individual will react.
These people can be normal, regular citizens. The bystander effect happens to most people and they’re not aware of it – there’s a strong situational rather than dispositional attribution to the behaviour (e.g. most of us have ignored alarms going off outside if we live in a city compared to if we lived rurally).
Because we don’t see others react, neither do we, thus reinforcing the entire group’s inaction because everyone’s looking at each other for the social proof of what to do. If everyone is hesitating to see what other people are doing first before they copy what to do then everyone is basically copying each other’s hesitancy!
The ambiguity of a situation is also a key factor in many cases (e.g. not knowing for sure if someone lying on the pavement is really asking for anyone’s help; although even when it’s clear, some people may still begin by looking at other people in the crowd to see if others will react or not first). People may also fear getting hurt or tricked if they get involved (but then they should call for someone else to investigate and help if so). A bystander may feel that since others are watching then these people will intervene so one doesn’t need to (thus a diffusion of responsibility to act) and/or feel that others would understand better what’s going on and deal with the situation better than oneself can without needing one’s involvement (and thus one’s own day isn’t inconvenienced either, especially if one is ‘busy’ or ‘in a rush’). And if no one else is reacting then it may be assumed that maybe these other people know something that one does not (e.g. that it’s just an act or hoax) but then everyone could be assuming the exact same assumption about each other! People seldom want to be the first or only person to react in fear of reputationally embarrassing themselves in front of others if an emergency wasn’t real. The desire to not socially embarrass oneself (especially amongst a large crowd) can override many, even moral, desires, such as to help someone in need.
People who score highly in ‘masculinity’ are actually less likely to help in ambiguous emergency situations, in case they end up looking like a fool if they’re incompetent or there was no emergency after all. Conversely, ‘femininity’ doesn’t seem to have an effect. Simple gender differences have mixed results – some studies suggest that men will more likely help women or intervene in dangerous situations, and women will more likely help children. We are of course more likely to help people we personally know, as well as members of our own ingroup.
In a captive audience situation (i.e. people cannot just walk on by e.g. they’re on a plane), a person may still intervene only after a lot of hesitation and looking at others to react first – maybe waiting to see if a qualified doctor or police officer will intervene first. In some contexts, people may be worried about their liability or other people misinterpreting their intention to help (e.g. an adult male trying to help a child who has tripped over – child abduction is abhorrent but then so is a world where people will be instantly accused of paedophilia if they tried to help a child).
If there is no crowd and only an individual is on the scene then this individual will more likely react to an emergency (including one that presents a high risk to this individual) compared to if he/she was in a crowd situation. People follow the herd, and if the herd doesn’t react then no one tends to react – but when one is not within a herd, one has a better chance of behaving independently.
Note that the bystander effect does not mean that people don’t want to help strangers! People will normally intervene, or at least try, if someone else is in an unambiguous and imminent emergency and if they’re right in front of them (e.g. if a victim is currently being attacked or someone accidentally fell onto a train track). I want to make it ultra clear that the bystander effect concerns when someone in need is in more ambiguous circumstances, and the larger the crowd, the less likely that any given person will help. People who are less familiar with what’s normal in a particular place are also less likely to intervene (e.g. do people just normally shout aggressively at each other here?) Although some people are selfish, at least sometimes, it’s not about people not wanting to help – altruism is common – it’s the tentativeness to help in such cases and rather waiting to see what other people do first. It’s a diffusion of responsibility. Someone will likely eventually help even in most of these cases, and once the first person to help helps, more people will likely gather around to offer their help too because they’ll now feel physically and/or reputationally safer to because they won’t be the only ones.
The bystander effect diminishes the fewer people are present. But as the number of people present increases, any given bystander is less likely to notice the incident, less likely to interpret the incident as a problem or emergency, and less likely to assume responsibility for taking action. Due to the power of cognitive dissonance and rationalising our decisions after we’ve made them – in experiments, many of those who don’t report an emergency explain their inaction was due to thinking that no emergency existed (e.g. explaining that smoke was assumed to be steam from an air conditioner, or even dismissing grey smoke coming in from under the door of a room if no one else is reacting(!) i.e. our excuse-making has no bounds!
Many people nowadays actually have a mindless default habit of pulling their phones out to video an incident so that they can say ‘I was there when x happened’ to a novel event (or what they assume is novel)! They might then post it on their social media as if to brag ‘I saw that and you didn’t’ (which a lot of social media content is about); like kids saying ‘I saw a Lamborghini yesterday’, which only impresses other kids(!) What gets recorded might even be tasteless (e.g. a fight or the aftermath of a road accident) and if only they weren’t twiddling with a phone they could’ve done something more practically useful in the situation. They may attempt to rationalise after they’d done what they’d done that they were ‘documenting it’ or preventing the escalation of a fight – but why not do both and actively help rather than passively stand on the edges with a phone hiding your face? (Maybe they understand that there’d be no worthwhile incident to video and post if they stopped it happening or progressing?!) This typically happens when people are in a crowd too, hence a link with the bystander effect.
The ‘diffusion of responsibility’ occurs when playing doubles tennis and the ball goes between the reaches of two players yet they both let it go. It occurs in timed team quiz shows where the more members in a team there are, the longer they take to pass questions, unless they designated a leader and planned a passing strategy beforehand. The bystander effect and the diffusion of responsibility also includes cases like tackling climate change or famine, where people diffuse responsibility onto others to act, especially when hidden or anonymous within the masses (some also believe that the climate change situation is ambiguous too). In a refugee/migrant crisis, many people accept that there’s a crisis and want something to be done about it to help the situation, but they don’t want to do something about it themselves yet want others to i.e. they don’t want to accept too many migrants into their own country but want other countries to do so (NIMBY, or ‘not in my backyard’); which is like when countries don’t want to curb their own carbon emissions yet want other countries to curb theirs, even if they accept anthropogenic climate change as true.
The lesson is that even if things are too overwhelming for one person to deal with – just do the best you personally can! Be active rather than passive. Assigning responsibilities beforehand (e.g. you are the person responsible for the safety of everyone here) or having an implied duty (e.g. to catch criminals if one is a police officer or tend to the sick if one is a doctor, even when one is off-duty) will also help. Woof!
Many people observing a situation from the outside (e.g. looking at a news report of a bystander effect story) would believe that they’d do the right thing (that they wouldn’t hesitate to stop and help any person in need) if they were ever found in a similar situation. But this bias just reinforces a familiar point – we often don’t know what we’d really do, and why we do what we do. (For instance, you’re not in a rush, your heart rate is calm and other differences between when you’re at home watching the news compared to when you’re eager for your lunch during your short lunch break and looking for a place to eat outside. Our perceptions and memories are also unreliable thus we may fail to realise who might’ve needed our help, and so we might not remember how many times we’ve just walked by such a situation during our days.) Hence experiments are quite revealing and education within the subject of human psychology is important for any human to learn. A top pilot learns all about the ins and outs of planes and flying in order to fly faster, safer and longer – a top human being arguably needs to learn all about the ‘vehicle he/she occupies everyday’ too in order to have a chance of being the best he/she can be.
If you’re the victim of an emergency amongst a crowd then make it unambiguous that it’s a real emergency and point out to specific individuals and look them in the eyes that you want their help. After one or two people start to pay attention and attend to an incident, gradually more and more people will likely get closer and offer help too because people feel safer to follow others in uncertain situations.
Woof. It helps to think independently. This is easier said than done though when sitting down and agreeing to this statement compared to being in a situation where it’s relevant and when behaving according to our fast and automatic instincts. But surely we prefer a society where it’s more socially embarrassing to not help or intervene when someone needs help than trying to be heroic but finding out that no one needs our help after all.