BYSTANDER EFFECT: Let's Avoid Being a Passive Witness?


In 1964, Kitty Genovese was killed outside her apartment building in densely populated Queens, New York. There were dozens of people that heard the pleas of the young woman screaming for help, but none of them took any action. This infamous murder launched the decades of studies investing the ‘Bystander Effect’ amoung humans.


Most of us must have heard the infamous News headline: Blinded by rage, man stabs wife repeatedly in Delhi's Rohini as bystanders record incident. What is even more shocking is that the brutal crime took place in the daylight with more than a hundred bystanders, some of whom were busy recording the incident. It is needless to mention that not even a single person tried to rescue the poor woman.


Such instances invite numerous questions behind such human psychology. If you witness an emergency situation right before your eyes, you would certainly take some sort of action to help the person in trouble? All of us might believe that this is true, but psychologists suggest something different. According to them, whether or not you intervene depends upon the number of other witnesses present on that spot and the fear of risk.


The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to a person in distress. People are more likely to take action in a crisis when there are few or no other witnesses present. This is termed the Bystander effect. It is the inhibiting influence of the presence of others on a person’s willingness to help someone in an emergency situation.


Some of the major factors that contribute to the bystander effect: 

  1. The presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility. Individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action because there are numerous other observers. The responsibility to act is thought to be shared among all of those present.

Similar acts of diffusion of responsibility is observed when it comes to donating to an NGO or to the needy person. People have the psyche that if some help is required, there are numerous people who will come forward and so, there is no need for them to intervene in such scenarios. 


  1. The need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways might also be one of the reasons for such human behaviour. A crisis is often chaotic and the situation is not always crystal clear. Onlookers might wonder exactly what is happening. During such moments, people often look to others in the group to determine what is appropriate. When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate.


  1. Fear of legal consequences also contributes to the Bystander effect. Some jurisdictions have passed Good Samaritan laws as encouragement for bystanders to act, offering legal protection to those trying to help victims. These laws are often limited.


It’s natural for people to go into shock or freeze on seeing someone having an emergency or being attacked. This is usually a response to fear—the fear that you are too weak to help, that you might be misunderstanding the context and seeing a threat where there is none, or even that intervening will put your own life in danger.


When we see someone in trouble, one of the first things that come to mind is whether we can become a target or a victim. This explains why people seldom react when others are in distress. But we should keep in mind that risk perception is highly individual and personal. However, this does not mean you should place yourself in danger.


But what if you are the person in need of assistance? How can you inspire people to lend a hand? One often recommended tactic is to single out one person from the crowd. Make eye contact and ask that individual specifically for help. By personalizing and individualizing your request, it becomes much harder for people to turn you down.


According to psychologist Kate Swoboda: ‘Nobody is born with courage, it is literally something that you have to learn If you practice courageous behaviors once, they can be replicated again. The more they are practiced and replicated, the more they become part of someone’s identity.

So let’s not become a bystander and try to avoid becoming a passive witness ?


Signing off,

Riya Shakchi.


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