Overcoming the Bystander Effect: Who’s Responsible for Helping
I wonder if others think about the bystander effect or apathy.
Guest blogger, Laura Brownstone, LCSW has been a therapist for over 15 years. In this post, she shares her experiences with the impact of apathy on her community and the value of contributing to the common good.
According to Wikipedia, the bystander effect is a “social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are other people present”. They can sink into the crowd and remain anonymous. “Ambiguity, cohesiveness and diffusion of responsibility reinforce mutual denial of a situation’s severity.”
I read about a mother who was struck by lighting on July 4th. Her family ran around Maggie Daley Park in downtown Chicago, trying to get someone to call an ambulance. Yet, numerous people in the crowd refused to call or even stop to help. Eventually an ambulance arrived and she stabilized in the hospital.
I wonder what went through the bystanders’ minds? Did race play a card? They were a Latino family. Of course it was not just race. I believe that it was apathy, apathy to anything that doesn’t involve us personally.
I went to a Starbucks a few weeks ago and saw a homeless man spill coffee creamer all over the floor. He was actively psychotic and talked to himself. At first look, it seemed that he was just being ignored, so I said something to the manager. I was worried about his care. He said that the police were called. Then I noticed that another employee was talking to him and trying to calm him down. It made me think of all the people without privilege, who are considered a nuisance or someone to dismiss.
Last week, I wanted to do a behavioral experiment at The Old Town Roots and Folk Festival in Chicago. I couldn’t eat a whole funnel cake, so I broke off a corner to eat. I then asked people in the crowd if they wanted the leftover cake.
I saw a family with two kids and thought it was an easy sell, but the father shrugged me away with a look of disdain. I thought I was doing a good thing, but I was a threat in his eyes. He didn’t know me, so I must be the ‘boogey man’ who laced gifts with a poisonous pox.
I tried to shrug it off, but I was left wondering why he couldn’t be friendly about an offer of generosity. After a few more rejections, I found two men who accepted the sugary gift happily. I was left wondering what makes some people afraid to step outside of their comfort zones, while others are open to the unfamiliar? I know it is not unusual to remain frozen or disdainful when approached by a stranger, but I wish for better.
Researchers believe that one way to overcome apathy is to help individuals feel connected, to feel that they are seen. They found that people are more apt to help, if they can identify with the person or if they feel that someone is deserving of help. Researchers also found that people tend to wait for others to be the first person to jump into action. Yet, once one person takes action, others get involved too. However if no one leads, then no one acts.
Below are three steps that can reduce the bystander effect:
First, I would indicate that it is an actual emergency. “She’s having a seizure” or “I’m having an emergency” are statements which help clear up any ambiguity on the part of the bystander, making it a clearer situation. This would be more effective than just yelling “Help!” in a crowded room.
Second, I would target a specific person: “Hey you, in the red shirt!” would be a way to get another person around you to feel personal responsibility in the situation even if they are a stranger. This would be a better alternative to yelling “Someone help me!” Since that phrase does not had a specific target in mind.
Finally, I would give them a specific job. “Call 9-1-1!” would be enough to get the bystander to understand their specific task they would need to perform.
As someone who has worked with underprivileged populations most of their professional life, I know that the scariest part can be the risk of investing time. The good news is simply being aware of the bystander effect, increases the likelihood of overcoming it and taking action the next time you’re in this kind of situation.
Laura Brownstone is a psychotherapist who practices in Chicago. She likes to write about empathy and relationships. She is curious of about life. She is certified in EMDR Therapy and is Trauma Informed. She helps clients become more self compassionate and aware of how they operate in the world. https://urbanbalance.com/therapist/laura-brownstone-lcsw/
Tags: Anger Management