Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to help someone, but didn’t? You may have experienced the bystander effect—a phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present in a situation, the less likely someone is to help a person in distress.

Understanding the Bystander Effect
Imagine that you are in sitting in a waiting room with several other people. Suddenly, smoke begins to billow out of a nearby vent. It begins to obscure your vision and interfere with your breathing, but no one else around you seems to be concerned. What do you do?

In a classic experiment conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latané (1960), individuals who were surrounded by others in a room filled with smoke would instinctively look to those surrounding them first. Only 10 percent of the participants actually left the room to report the seemingly threatening situation. Unbeknownst to them, everyone else in the room was a confederate, an actor instructed to pretend that they did not notice or care about the approaching threat of the smoke. In contrast, study participants who were alone in the waiting room, almost immediately both detected the danger and left the room.

That’s the power of group pressure—Check it out!

Although, conducted almost 20 years ago, this study demonstrates just how powerful the bystander effect is—not only do we not intervene to help others, but the presence of other people can have an inhibiting influence on our behavior and even make us put our own lives at risk.

The bystander effect can occur in various situations, including both violent and nonviolent crimes. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 70 percent of assaults and 52 percent of robberies were accompanied by bystanders—individuals judged by victims as “neither helping nor hurting” (48 percent). The bystander effect also encompasses behaviors such as bullying, drunk driving, and other common societal issues.

Creating a Caring Community
More than ever, research emphasizes that a solution to many health and social justice issues requires that we engage bystanders—those who observe a problematic event, may want to do something, but do not. Bystander intervention is a strategy for the prevention of various types of violence.

Some of the most problematic behaviors on college campuses (e.g., sexual assault, discrimination, etc.) involve bystanders. Bystander Empowerment training provides a framework that explains the bystander effect, why people so often do not offer help, and teaches skills for intervening successfully using the 5-Step Decision Making Model:

  1. Notice the event
  2. Interpret the event as a problem
  3. Assume personal responsibility
  4. Know how to help
  5. Implement the help: Step UP!

Schedule Bystander Empowerment Training

We all think we’ll never be in an emergency situation or things won’t happen to us. But it can easily be you or your friend who needs help. Redbird Respect bystander intervention training is available to student groups and organizations as well as faculty and staff through Health Promotion and Wellness. This program teaches people about the bystander effect in a variety of situations. The training also helps participants develop the skills and confidence to safely help others.

Bystander Empowerment Training aims to educate university staff, students, and community members on how to be proactive in helping others directly or indirectly in both emergency and non-emergency situations. Bystander training can be tailored to fit specific groups and situations. For more information, call (309) 438-WELL (9355) or submit an online workshop request.

Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1969). Bystander “apathy.” American Scientist, 57, 244-268.

Hart, T.; Miethe, T. (2008). “Exploring Bystander Presence and Intervention in Nonfatal Violent Victimization: When Does Helping Really Help?” Violence and Victims 23: 637-651.

Latané, B. and Darley, J. M. (1970) The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Manning, R., Levine, M. & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 2007;62: 555-562.

McDermott, Mark [markmcdermott]. (2007, September, 17). The Smoke Filled Room Study [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KE5YwN4NW5o

Soloman, L.Z, Solomon, H., & Stone, R. (1978). Helping as a function of number of bystanders and ambiguity of emergency. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 318-321.