By definition, a bystander is a person who is present at an event or an incident but does not take part. The bystander effect though is a known social theory which states that individuals are less likely to assist a victim when there are other people present, and in fact, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help.
Several psychological theories have been proposed to explain this. For instance, there is an overall feeling of having less responsibility when more bystanders are present, the fear of unfavourable public judgement when helping, as well as the belief that because no one else is helping, the situation is not actually an emergency.
Some new reports also suggest that the reflex reaction of a bystander to an incident is also dependent on their individual personality and not just situational factors.
Recent disturbing events in the US have prompted several discussions about the role of bystanders. Many publications have indeed acknowledged how incredibly difficult it is considering the number of calculations a bystander must make, how vulnerable they might be and how they might be perceived before they rush in to help.
A few weeks ago, a book by Catherine Sanderson, an American Professor of Life Sciences was published entitled “Why we act--turning bystanders into moral rebels”.
A renowned psychologist who has done pioneering research on social norms, Catherine Sanderson was inspired to write this book when a friend of her son died after a bad fall while drinking.
There were many points along the way when a decision to seek help could have saved his life, but no one intervened.
In this book, she discussed the bystander effect and strategies people can use to become “moral rebels”--those who display moral courage and choose to do something rather than watching in silence.
Interestingly enough, she mentioned that doctors and nurses, as well as others with specialised training such as soldiers and firemen were the ones most likely to spring into action during an emergency, as they felt more responsible to do so.
This in turn made me wonder how likely it was that I would intervene in various scenarios particularly with many people watching my every move.
It is generally felt that the ones who intervene feel a certain level of confidence about their own judgement and ability, thereby believing their actions will make a difference.
Adhering to your own moral beliefs and values, in the face of pressures not to do so, also gives an indication about self-esteem.
Doctors and other medical professionals have been shown for the most part to be confident and self-assured individuals and often score highly on personality evaluation and testing, (sometime a bit too confident others may add).
On the other end of the spectrum, the bystander effect in medicine can indeed be harmful to patients and various reports have documented this.
For instance, it has been shown that when many different specialty teams are called in to help diagnose a perplexing condition or are involved in a challenging case with multiple problems, this may actually result in chaos and inaction.
Essentially, the participants assume passive roles, expecting another physician to bear the burden of authority and responsibility.
This indeed may be true for all fields, not just medicine. This belief that someone else from a group will probably respond is known as a “diffusion of responsibility”, again with the more people involved, the more likely it is that each person will do nothing.
It is important to consider the possibility that every day we are bystanders to the world around us, not just to someone in danger on the street.
We may feel powerless to address issues that concern us, whether they be social, political, or environmental.
Even in our homes, communities and country, the bystander phenomenon can pervade every aspect of our life as we are afraid that our actions will go unnoticed and our voices unheard.
Equally, we may feel that the responsibility lies with someone else.
Attempting to cultivate an internal motivation, having personal empathy and a moral obligation are essential in overcoming these assumptions.
After all, constantly worrying about what other people may think can paralyse us into repeated inaction.
Almost everyone, including myself, is guilty of this at some point in time.
We should all consider our willingness to stand up to others and say or do the right thing despite social pressure to remain silent and go along with the crowd. Challenging ourselves to be better and braver may eventually lead to a more favourable outcome by simply changing our thinking from a passive to an active bystander.