The Bystander Effect

By / in Psychology / Posted March 24, 2018

In India, it’s generally acceptable to disregard public property as most Indians believe it is the government’s duty to provide public infrastructure and maintain it as well. This mindset also takes over when people see criminal offenses committed in public. The citizens’ thinking is – “It’s not my job, the police should do something about it”. Most Indians are wired to think that the leaders control everything and are responsible for everything, including blame. Why is it that people are fine with seeing terrible things happen, without having any sense of personal responsibility to take action?

This is known as “The Bystander Effect”.

Tragedy Strikes

The Bystander Effect makes people fine with seeing terrible things happen, and not help.

The Bystander Effect is when people avoid helping when terrible things happen.

The day was October 23rd, 2017. The headline was – “Bystanders film Vizag woman’s rape”. This case shows a new level of “bystanders”. In Visakhapatnam (Vizag), the financial capital of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a 43 year old woman was sleeping alone under a tree. Three days prior to this, she had left her family due to a domestic dispute. She had been homeless these days and was trying to recover from an already adverse situation. Tragically, things became much worse when a 23 year old man attacked and raped her.

When he started attacking her, multiple people gathered and started filming the assault. After some time, more bystanders joined in to not only witness the crime but also film it. None of them made a single effort to intervene this brutal attack, save a driver, who called the police after completing his recording.

After the woman was attacked, the police officers finally arrived at the scene. They were too late, and those who could have helped her did nothing. This horrific incident is a prime example of “The Bystander Effect”. However, this mentality is not limited to any country, but a global occurrence that is part of the human psychology.

The Bystander Effect

It is a social psychological phenomenon where people at an individual level are less likely to help in situations where they see others not helping a victim or person-in-need. There is plenty of research across the world supporting the existence of this phenomenon. For example, the famous social psychology experiment performed by Latane and Darley. In this social experiment, bandits robbed a boy and beat him nearly to death. No one came to aid the boy throughout the attack or immediately after. Incredibly, even a priest walked by without helping the boy. This proves that the psychological mechanics behind this issue affect all humans, even those who are deeply empathetic and trained and experienced in providing psychological support to society.

Further Evidence

We need more empathy so we can act to help people, regardless of what others do.

We must instill a strong sense of empathy and responsibility in our children.

The Bystander Effect can also be seen in children as young as 5 years old. An experiment was conducted by Maria Plötner of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. She and her colleagues selected 60 children aged 5 and began painting on cardboard with colored water. Next, they separated the kids with cardboard walls and intentionally spilled colored water on the table in order to get their attention and see if they would help clean the mess with paper towels. Interestingly, when separated and alone, most of the kids noticed the problem and took action by getting paper towels and cleaning.

The next step was to determine whether the children would behave the same way when they are together. So, Plötner gathered the children around and intentionally spilled colored water on the table. To everyone’s surprise, only 50% of the children helped by fetching the paper towels. This leads us to believe that as humans, we relinquish personal responsibility at a very early stage in life.

While comparing Plötner’s experiment with the awful incident that happened in Vizag, we can conclude that the Bystander Effect occurs in our life at a very early stage and persists as we become adults. Unfortunately, as we grow up, the potential need to act in troubling social situations increases. However, our ability to take action remains the same, like the children in the experiment.

This calls for a desperate need to spread social awareness about personal responsibility. Informing citizens about the need to take responsibility and act when others are in danger or need help. We must instill a strong sense of empathy in our children. If the time comes where they can help someone in need, they take it upon themselves to act, regardless of what others do.