By Lynn Cadet

Seeing a person in danger or someone harassed publicly can be jarring. And figuring out what to do next can be even more overwhelming. As a bystander witnessing a harrowing scene on a busy street, what would you do? The appropriate answer would be, “I would help!” However, it isn’t always that simple. Sometimes, it’s difficult to ascertain our true actions in an emergency as our goodwill intentions may not win out in reality. It is easier to think than to act—a statement that definitely applies in this effect. 

Over the years, there have been many incidents where crowds of bystanders have witnessed crimes unfold without a single person stepping in to help the victim with their injuries or fight off the attacker. The reasoning behind this inaction can vary depending on the environment or situation. But when more bystanders are present, the less likely people will volunteer assistance. Because of the diffusion of responsibility, they feel less personal responsibility to volunteer first, resulting in hesitation to step in. 

One of the first known cases that popularised the bystander effect occurred in 1964. A serial killer had brutally murdered bar manager Catherine “Kitty” Genovese behind her apartment complex as she walked home from work. Initially, the New York Times reported 38 people witnessed the murder but the newspaper later admitted to exaggeration. 

Few people actually saw Kitty and the suspect near the complex that night, and none of them physically observed the stabbing. However, when she screamed, no one had come out to help her, which testifies to the bystander effect’s heartbreaking effect. 

The bystander effect not only applies to violent cases, such as murder or assault but also events of bullying or even peer pressure. Fighting this inaction is crucial to protecting our community members and stopping instigators in their tracks. We should all think of it as our civic duty to prevent it.

Why The Effect Happens

So why don’t we all display Good Samaritan qualities? Well, it comes down to our complex decision-making. According to psychology researchers Latane and Darley, a five-step decision model can explain why bystanders don’t interfere. 

The model includes these steps:

  • The bystander must identify a problem.
  • Realise the problem’s urgency.
  • Ponder their responsibility in the emergency.
  • Figure out how to provide aid.
  • Then must follow through with their decision. 

If the bystander answers “no” at any stage, it means they will not attempt to offer aid. When reaching the third step, the number of bystanders present can affect the possibility of inaction. In the Latane and Darley study, 75% of lone participants assisted when seeing trouble—a shocking revelation compared to the smaller 31% of group participants that helped. 

How To Intervene

Honestly, it’s worrying to realise that if you or your loved one was in trouble that someone might not react and help. I wouldn’t want to group myself into the bystander category, but the diffusion of responsibility is a genuine concept that can affect our actions in high-stress events. 

So what can we do to get informed and prepare for a situation like this?

After seeing Asian-American hate crimes rise in the U.S., Hollaback! senior trainer Dax Valdes partnered with Asian Americans Advancing Justice to combat street harassment and equip the community with prevention strategies. They teach ready-to-use skills to protect and create a safer space for the victim through free webinar training and education. Here are the 5 Ds tactics to consider for bystander effect prevention:

  • Distract: An effective way to decrease tension is to distract. By creating a diversion, attention can be shifted away or towards the conflict, depending on what’s needed.
  • Delegate: Delegating means finding someone to help you in diffusing the situation. This person could be an officer, a bus driver, or anyone nearby that can assist you.
  • Document: As a bystander, you can also document the incident by filming or taking pictures. It is a less active approach but can help with recording the evidence needed for an investigation. Without Darnella Frazier’s bravery in recording George Floyd’s death last May, his murder probably would have never gone to trial with no justice served
  • Delay: It may not seem as effective as the other tactics, but waiting to assist could benefit you and the victim. If the conflict stands to be too risky, you can always check in after and do what you can to help from there.
  • Direct: If you feel comfortable directly interfering in an attack, you should consider boundaries to set for your safety beforehand. Calling the authorities will be the best choice if the violence escalates and medical attention is required. 

Unfortunately, the saying “strength in numbers” doesn’t always come into play, and people often stay bystanders. Selfish thinking and hesitation from a group standpoint can lead to inaction. But by equipping ourselves with the 5Ds, we can be ready to jump into action and keep ourselves innocent of the sometimes devastating, bystander effect.