The following is an adaptation of a short paper I wrote while studying for my master’s in psychology.  Because papers written in APA style tend to be super dry and completely devoid of personality, I have tried to give it a little life, but still keep the professionalness of the concept intact.  The question I am pondering in this writing is “Why, as bystanders, don’t we just stop and help when we see someone in trouble or distress”?  Like it or not, we are social creatures and as such, can be peculiarly the same as everyone else in certain situations.  We worry that we will not be socially accepted, so we go along with the social norms, even if in our hearts we don’t really agree with them.  This brings me to a subject much studied by psychologists, social psychologists no less.

  The bystander effect is the social psychology term that tries to explain what happens when bystanders just stand around and do not help someone who is clearly in distress or needs help when there are other people around. What makes this even more bizarre, the more people that are present, the less likely that any of the bystanders will offer help. Why don’t we offer help?  It could be that we just don’t know what to do, when we are suddenly faced with an emergency, we need to think about what is really happening and what we should do about it before acting, but if that were the case, eventually a person in distress would receive help from us. It could be we think that if we help, the other people around will not like it, thus won’t like us. Yes, sadly this is the more likely scenario. This actually has a name; it’s been named audience inhibition by social psychologists. Another bizarre human nature quirk, with other people around, it deters helping behaviors when bystanders see that no one else is helping. We don’t want to look foolish. This is known as social pressure (Branscombe & Baron, 2017). There are several different concepts (thoroughly researched, discussed and named by social psychologists) that can influence bystander’s helping behavior.  A few of these are; diffusion of responsibility, pluralistic ignorance, and victim effects.

Diffusion of responsibility

     This concept says that people don’t offer help because they believe that the other witnesses will or have already offered help, therefore it is not their responsibility. the more strangers who witness an emergency, the less likely it will be for the victim to receive help because the more potential helpers there are, the less responsible each person will feel, and believe that it is not their responsibility.  Interestingly, the exception to this is if the person needing help looks like the bystander. In this case, the bystander is more likely to lend a hand (Levine, Prosser, Evans, & Reicher, 2005 as cited in Branscombe & Baron, 2017).

John Darley and Bibb Latané, two social psychologists tested this concept way back in the 60’s.  They conducted an experiment where male college students were exposed to a fake emergency. (Darley, & Latane, 1968). During the experiment a fellow student began to have an apparent seizure and was clearly in need of help. Some of the participants believed they were the only witness to this emergency while others were aware of other bystanders. What Darley and Latané found was that the more bystanders participants believed were present, the less they offered help. Darley and Latané concluded that this decision may have been influenced by social pressure to do and act according to social norms and believing that they thought and acted differently than other people.

Pluralistic Ignorance

     This concept is explained as a situation where a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but incorrectly assume that most others accept it. (Carlo & Erik 2014) An example of this would be in a college classroom where most students in the class hold back from asking clarification questions, assuming that everyone else in the class understands the material. In reality, it is more likely that most students in the class have the same unasked, therefore unanswered, questions. This pluralistic Ignorance explains why bystanders don’t immediately help a victim of an emergency. The fact that no one else is helping is perceived as if the victim is probably not really in need of help, and any gesture towards helping might be seen by the other bystanders as stupid. People seem to be self-conscious about being perceived as different.

     One exception to this rule is when a group of friends are together instead of strangers, they are much more likely to help.  Friends are more likely to communicate about what is going on because they know each other.  Researchers found that it is the same with people from small towns or communities. (Levine, Prosser, Evans, & Reicher, 2005 as cited in Branscombe & Baron, 2017) People are more likely to know each other at an event than people in the city. When things happen on a street corner or the subway, there are many people together in a place, but no one knows each other. In small town gatherings however, most people know several people in the crowd. Personally, I can attest to this as I am from one such small town community. We all know each other even if we have never formally met.

     Another exception to this is people who have been drinking. Fear and anxiety are reduced by consuming alcohol. This means bystanders who have been drinking are more likely to help. (Branscombe & Baron, 2017). These guys are not concerned with the perceived social or cultural pressures that usually keep people from acting, lowered inhibitions and all that.

Victim effects

      This concept says that when a bystander considers helping a victim, he or she will be more willing to help someone who they identify with, someone their age or gender for example.  Research conducted by (Hodges and colleagues, 2010, as cited in Branscombe & Baron, 2017) shows that when we are similar to the victim, it increases our empathy for that victim. We can see ourselves in their place.  This comes much easier when we see the similarity to ourselves rather than when the victim is not in any way like us.

     All is not lost however; all it takes is one person to overcome their fears and actually step in and help. When a bystander does step in, it becomes a strong social model for others to follow, a sort of shift in the dynamics.  When someone is seen helping and being helped, it is a compelling motivator for other bystanders to also pitch in.  This is because the bystander who follows suit may have been thinking all along about helping but was held back by fear or anxiety of appearing to be foolish.  When another person models the behavior the bystander desires, it becomes a trigger that it is okay to act.

Summary and Conclusion

     The bystander effect is a very complex social norm. When there is an emergency and a clear victim, the social response of the bystanders in the area seems to be determined by the number of bystanders.  The higher the number of bystanders, the more we look for social ques that we are not making the wrong decision when we consider acting.  We don’t want to make the wrong decision and be ridiculed, perhaps a social outcast.  We look to what everyone else is doing to help us decide.  We know we need to act if we are the only bystander, because there is no one else present who can.  When there are others present, that decision is diffused by uncertainty while feelings of responsibility seem to be diminished.

When we identify with or even know the victim, we are much more likely to help because we can put ourselves in their place.  Still, when the victim is a stranger, we tend to shy away from offering help because we don’t want to be perceived by the other bystanders to be foolish. So, perception and acceptance play a huge role in the phenomenon of the bystander effect.  Hopefully, knowing about the effect now, you will recognize the situation when it happens and be prepared to be brave (face your fears) and help a victim out.  Understanding a concept is the first step in changing things for the better.


Branscombe, N.R. & Baron, R.A. (2017) Social Psychology. (14 eds.) New York, NY. Pearson Publications.

Carlo, P., & Erik J., O. (2014). A DDL Approach to Pluralistic Ignorance and Collective Belief. Journal of Philosophical Logic, (2/3), 499.

Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4, Pt.1), 377-383. doi:10.1037/h0025589

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