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Bystander Effect

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The Bystander Effect is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when an emergency situation is presented to a group of people. The larger the group or the more people that are present during the emergency, the less likely it is that anyone will render assistance.

Though this may at first seem to be an unusual idea, there are many examples in daily life. When driving on a busy highway or road, a car broken down on the side will almost never receive help. On the other hand, on a country road with almost no traffic, it is almost an unwritten rule that one stops and lends assistance to anyone in need.

The most famous example of this and what kick-started researchers to study the Bystander Effect, was an event during 1964. Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in front of an apartment complex, with 38 people who lived there watching or listening. The whole process took approximately 30 minutes and no one called the police until long after the attacker had fled.

Causes of the Bystander Effect

Diffusion of Responsibility

When in an emergency situation with a large group of people, each individual assumes that someone else will handle the situation. The more people that are in a group, the less responsible each individual feels.

Pluralistic Ignorance (Ambiguity of Emergency)

In an unfamiliar situation people tend to look to others for instruction. People watch what others are doing and mimic their actions. If everyone is waiting for someone else to do something and watching to see what other people are doing, everyone sees each other doing nothing, and mimics that behaviour.

Audience Inhibition (Fear of Blunder)

The more people that are in a group, the more fear people have of making a mistake.

How to avoid the Bystander Effect

The psychological community has developed a five-step, cognitive model for avoiding the Bystander Effect:

  • Notice something is happening
  • Interpret the situation as an emergency
  • Assume personal responsibility
  • Choose a form of assistance
  • Implement assistance

The first step is basically to pay attention and know what is going on. Look at the situation directly and assess it as best you can from your own knowledge. Do not turn to others to see what they are doing. If it is an emergency situation, take responsibility. Chances are, if you do not do anything, no one will. Next, figure out what needs to be done and do it.

How to Avoid Being a Victim of the Bystander Effect

Talk to people directly. Make eye contact. If possible, use people's names; if not, point. Tell exactly which people to do what. Do not yell indiscreetly for help but do let people know that it is an emergency situation.

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