There’s an old woman sitting on a bench, sobbing loudly into her hands. Surrounding her are countless people: a man sitting on the bench next to her, a few people standing at a nearby bus stop, and many walking right by. While some clearly notice the distressed woman, nobody asks her if she’s okay; while some clearly feel bad for the distressed woman, nobody asks if they can help.

The most likely explanation? The bystander effect. The bystander effect is the phenomenon in which people are less likely to offer help in instances when others are present; the greater the number of people present, the less likely any individual is to step in. There are a few reasons for this effect: one, an individual doesn’t feel responsible or obligated to help someone when there are others around who could help; two, an individual assumes that someone has already offered to help the victim or will offer to help the victim; three, an individual often feels the need to behave in a socially acceptable way, so they are deterred from helping if that route has not been taken by another.

Fact vs. Fiction

There are a few common misconceptions about the bystander effect, such as who it can affect and how powerful it can be. Let’s take a look:

Fact:

  • Anyone can and likely will fall victim to the bystander effect at some point in their life.
  • The bystander effect can occur even in extreme circumstances such as kidnappings and killings.
  • In an emergency situation, the likelihood that at least one out of four or more bystanders will help is just 31%.
  • In an emergency situation, 85% of people would help if they were the only one present.
  • Someone is more likely to be a bystander if the situation is ambiguous

Fiction:

  • If you’re a kind person who cares about other’s wellbeing, you won’t fall victim to the bystander effect.
  • The bystander effect does not exist when circumstances are severe or someone is at risk of losing their life.
  • If a situation is unclear, bystanders will more likely intervene to make sure everything is okay.
  • When children are at risk, individuals are less likely to stand idly by.

What Would You Do?

Many like to think that they would help someone who needs it without question and despite the amount of onlookers present. However, the reality is much different when they actually find themselves in the situation. ABC’s What Would You Do? is a hidden camera TV show that tests individuals when they are in these circumstances. It features actors who act out a given conflict or activity in a very public area, and focuses on the bystanders—some remove themselves from the situation or pretend not to notice and others show true heroism by intervening and helping whoever appears to need it.

Once the scene has played out, host John Quinones steps in and talks to the people who surveyed the situation going down as well as those who intervened. Viewers at home watch as individuals discuss different reasons for avoidance or interference: some felt as if they had no other choice but to step in, while others (thanks to the bystander effect) explained they felt it wasn’t their place or duty to.

Famous Examples of the Bystander Effect

The bystander effect can be deadly—here are several of the most severe and well-known cases:

The Murder of Kitty Genovese
In March of 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was killed in front of her apartment. She had just arrived home and was approaching her door when a man suddenly attacked her, stabbing her in the back twice. Kitty screamed for help, in hopes that one of her nearby neighbors would come to her rescue, but her cries were met with no assistance. By the time someone finally called the police, it was too late—Kitty was already gone. The bystander effect caused Kitty’s neighbors to feel a lack of responsibility to help her; they likely assumed someone else had already called police or would shortly. This assumption unfortunately contributed to Kitty’s death.

Shanda Sharer
Shanda Sharer was a 12-year-old girl who was abducted, tortured, and killed by four teenage girls in January of 1992. The girls lured Sharer from her house, claiming they were all going to a mutual friend’s; instead, they took her to and tied her up in a local run-down house. From this point on, Sharer was ruthlessly tortured and eventually killed. After the matter, a couple of the girls claimed they wanted no part of what was being done to Sharer. But due to the power of the bystander effect, they stood idly by and Sharer’s life was taken.

Ilan Halimi
Halimi was a young man who was kidnapped in Paris in January of 2006. He was subsequently tortured for many days following, using brutal practices to torment Halimi, ones that caused quite the commotions. Neighbors in the apartment block heard these commotions and some even showed up to watch and join in on the efforts. Nobody ever called the police, permitting the horrific acts to continue and an eventual killing to occur. Halimi died a few weeks after his initial kidnapping, the bystander effect playing a grave role in his passing.

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Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett

Taylor Bennett is the Content Development Manager at Thriveworks. She devotes herself to distributing important information about mental health and wellbeing, writing mental health news and self-improvement tips daily. Taylor received her bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism, with minors in professional writing and leadership from Virginia Tech. She is a co-author of Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book and has published content on Thought Catalog, Odyssey, and The Traveling Parent.

Check out “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book” written by AJ Centore and Taylor Bennett."

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