Bystander effect

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This page will contain information as it comes to hand on the phenomenon of the Bystander effect.

We will post research articles, experiments, links and any relevant information regarding this interesting effect

Definition[edit]

Bystander Effect: When people are in the presence of others, they are less likely to offer help than when they are alone

Before a bystander is likely to take action, they must define the event as an emergency and decide that intervention is the proper course of action. While making these decisions the bystander may become influenced by the decisions they perceive other bystanders to be taking. If each one of the other bystanders seems to regard the event as non-serious, it changes and affects the perceptions of any single individual and inhibits potential helping behaviour!

The five steps to helping[edit]

  1. Notice that something is happening
  2. Interpret the meaning of the event
  3. Take responsibility for providing help
  4. Know how to help
  5. Provide help

Before an individual can decide to intervene in an emergency, they must take several steps. If the person is to intervene they must first notice the event, they must interpret the situation as an emergency, and they must decide that it is their personal responsibility to act. At each of these preliminary steps, the bystander to an emergency can remove themselves from the decision process and thus fail to help. They can fail to notice the event, fail to interpret the event as an emergency, or can fail to assume the responsibility to take action.

Founding research into the "Bystander Effect"[edit]

  • Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 377-383.
  • Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 215-221.

Exploring the Bystander Effect: Situations Where it is Likely to Occur[edit]

The Kitty Genovese incident represented a monumental milestone in the history of social psychology. Broadly, this stipulates that people are reluctant to intervene and assist a person in need, particularly when other people are present. The bystander effect has attracted much research attention. A primary aim of the current discussion was to identify situations in which the bystander effect would be most likely to occur. A secondary aim was to outline possible initiatives to reduce this and increase altruism. A review of the current literature revealed that the bystander effect seems most likely to occur in the following situations: when other people are present; when people are concerned that their altruistic behaviour will be negatively appraised; when the costs of intervening outweigh costs related to not intervening; and when people are unable to identify with a person in need of assistance. Implications for reducing the bystander effect are also discussed.

In 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was violently stabbed to death. This act was witnessed by 38 onlookers. However, no one phoned emergency services, or came to her assistance (Darley & Latane, 1968). Despite the number of people witnessing this incident, why then did no one assist her? Researchers have attempted to uncover reasons why people seem reluctant to assist a person in need, particularly when other people are present. One possible explanation is the bystander effect, where people are less likely to assist a person in distress when other people are present (Garcia, Weaver, Darley, & Moskowitz, 2002). Other theoretical models have been proposed to explain peoples’ reluctance to intervene when a person requires assistance. These models are diffusion of responsibility, audience inhibition, and cost/benefit appraisal. They suggest that the bystander effect is most likely to occur when other people are present; when people are concerned about being negatively evaluated for engaging in altruistic behaviour; when potential costs of intervening outweigh those related to not intervening; and when people are unable to identify with a person in need. In addition, the bystander effect and its related theoretical models, offer implications for reducing its prevalence. Possible approaches could involve teaching people altruistic and community-oriented attitudes, through education programs and role modelling. Additional approaches could involve techniques to assist people manage concerns about negative appraisal after intervening.

The bystander effect was a theoretical model proposed to explain why people are reluctant to intervene and assist a person in need. According to this model, when others are present, people are less likely to intervene. Early research conducted by Latane and Darley (1968) demonstrated that when people witnessed an emergency, such as a room filling with smoke; they were less likely to report the emergency when other people were present. Diffusion of responsibility might explain why people are reluctant to intervene when others are present. Diffusion of responsibility occurs when people are less likely to feel responsible for their actions when surrounded by others. Responsibility becomes ‘diffused’ throughout the group (Latane & Darley, 1968). Early research by Darley and Latane (1968) demonstrated diffusion of responsibility among 72 bystanders in response to a person experiencing a severe epileptic seizure. Results indicated that those, who were alone when they witnessed the epileptic seizure, were more likely to report the incident than those, who witnessed the incident with other people. Another theoretical model, which might contribute to the bystander effect is audience inhibition.

Audience inhibition might explain why people are reluctant to intervene in response to a potential emergency. People become concerned about other people negatively appraising their altruistic behaviour. This then contributes to a reluctance to intervene, due to concerns about guilt, shame, and embarrassment (Cacioppo, Petty, & Losch, 1986). Cacioppa et al. investigated the effect of audience inhibition on attributions of responsibility in a vignette outlining a person in need of assistance. Participants were 220 undergraduates, who read the vignette and provided a rating about how responsible they thought the helper in the vignette would be for the person’s pain and suffering. The study manipulated the number of people witnessing the incident (0, 1, 5, or 10). Findings indicated that as the number of bystanders increased; those who adopted the perspective of the helper, assigned more responsibility. Furthermore, participants who adopted the perspective of a bystander; indicated that they rated the helper as responsible for harming the person, irrespective of the number of bystanders present. When more bystanders are present, people are likely to respond to a person intervening, in a more negative manner, compared to when less people are present. A cost/benefit appraisal model represents another approach to explaining the bystander effect.

Cognitive decision-making processes, such as cost/benefit appraisal have been linked to the bystander effect. Cognitive appraisal suggests that after a person notices someone in need, a decision-making process takes place about whether to intervene. This involves considering potential benefits (for example, social approval) and costs (for example, concerns about being harmed) of intervening. It also involves an assessment of the potential costs (for example, guilt and shame) and benefits (for example, avoiding harm and injury) of not intervening. According to the cost/benefit appraisal model, people are less likely to intervene when the potential costs of intervening outweigh those associated with not intervening (Kerber, 1984). Consistent with a cost/benefit approach, early research by Piliavin, Piliavin, and Rodin (1975) demonstrated that passengers in a subway carriage were less likely to assist another passenger with facial disfigurement (high cost of assisting), compared to a passenger without facial disfigurement (low cost of assisting). Theoretical models related to the bystander effect are important because they suggest situations in which the bystander effect is most likely to occur.

Fundamentally, the bystander effect is most likely to occur when a group of people witness a situation, where a person is in distress and requires assistance. According to the theoretical model of diffusion of responsibility, people are less likely to intervene and come to the assistance of someone because they feel less responsible, as responsibility for the welfare of the person is shared among the other people witnessing the incident (Garcia et al., 2002). Much of the research investigating the effect of diffusion of responsibility on peoples’ helping behaviour is dated. For example, early research by Latane and Darley (1968) suggested that people are less likely to intervene during an emergency when others are present. In this study, undergraduates completed questionnaires in a room that filled with smoke. Those in small groups were less likely to report the incident, compared to those who were alone.

Recent studies have demonstrated the effect of diffusion of responsibility on peoples’ helping behaviour in impersonal settings, such as electronic communication. In a study conducted by Blair, Thompson, and Wuensch (2005), 400 undergraduates were sent a bogus email from a new student, seeking assistance about how to access an on-line journal database. The number of other students, who participants were led to believe had also received the email was manipulated, resulting in four conditions (0, 1, 14, or 49 other recipients). Consistent with diffusion of responsibility, participants were less likely to respond to the email when they believed other people had also received the email. Similar findings were found by Barron and Yechiam (2002). In this study, an email generated more responses when it was sent to a single recipient, and responses were more detailed, compared to when it was sent to multiple recipients. Peoples’ reluctance to intervene for fear of negative evaluation is likely to contribute to the bystander effect. According to the theoretical model of audience inhibition, people are less likely to assist another person, when they are concerned that their altruistic behaviour will be negatively appraised (Cacioppo et al., 1986; Garcia et al., 2002; Thompson et al., 2005). People become reluctant to intervene because of concerns about experiencing guilt, shame, or embarrassment. Research exists to support the validity of audience inhibition as a theoretical model related to the bystander effect.

Karakashian, Walter, Christopher, and Lucas (2006) explains how the effect of negative evaluation works. Participants were 83 undergraduates, who were randomly assigned to two conditions: a social group (a small group comprising three people) and a nonsocial group (where participants were by themselves). In each condition, a confederate proceeded to drop a large pile of compact discs. The researchers measured participants’ willingness to assist the confederate. Findings indicated that when participants were by themselves, they were three times more likely to assist the confederate than when they were in a small group. This finding is consistent with diffusion of responsibility. Those in the small group were probably reluctant to intervene, due to feeling that responsibility for intervening may have been shared with the other participants (Latane & Darley, 1968). In addition, participants who did not assist the confederate, reported that they were reluctant to intervene, due to concerns of how other participants might perceive them. Furthermore, those who did not assist the confederate reported higher concerns about negative appraisal on self-report measures, compared to those who assisted the confederate.

Prior to intervening and assisting a person in need, people are likely to appraise the situation, by considering the respective costs and benefits of intervening and not intervening. This cognitive appraisal is consistent with a cost/benefit appraisal model. According to this theoretical model, people are less likely to assist another person when the perceived costs of intervening outweigh those associated with not intervening (Kerber, 1984). For example, a person may encounter a physical altercation and be reluctant to intervene, due to concerns about potential threats to their safety and physical integrity. Even though they may have some concern about the other person’s welfare, concerns about their own welfare might be a more compelling reason to not intervene. The potential costs of intervening would thus outweigh those related to not intervening. Research has demonstrated the effect of cost/benefit appraisal on altruistic behaviour. Early research conducted by Kerber (1984) demonstrated that when people perceive more benefits and lower costs, they are likely to engage in helping behaviour. This study relied on a sample of undergraduates, who read scenarios in which another student approached them, seeking directions to the admissions office. Scenarios varied, based on the potential costs (for example, amount of time and money lost) and rewards (for example, amount of gratitude displayed) associated with assisting the person. Participants indicated the amount of assistance that they would be prepared to provide. Overall, people reported that they were prepared to provide less assistance when potential rewards were low, compared to when they were high. Furthermore, participants were less likely to provide assistance when the potential costs were high. Self-categorisation theory might also outline situations, where the bystander effect is likely to occur. According to self-categorisation theory, people are less likely to assist outgroup members and more likely to assist ingroup members. This theoretical model suggests that people attempt to categorise themselves as belonging to either an ingroup or outgroup. This is based on the extent to which people identify with others, with whom they share similar attributes, and the extent to which they discriminate themselves from others, with whom they might not be able to identify (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987). In the context of the bystander effect, if people are unable to identify with a person in need of assistance, then they are likely to view that person as an outgroup member, and be reluctant to intervene. Conversely, when a person in need of assistance is identified with and viewed as a member of one’s ingroup, people would be more likely to intervene (Levine, Cassidy, Brazier, & Reicher, 2002).

This study demonstrated that people are less likely to assist a person in need, if they are unable to identify with them, due to viewing the person as an outgroup member. Participants and confederates watched a brief video clip, portraying a physical altercation. Confederates described themselves as students at the same university (ingroup members) or students from another university (outgroup members). Confederates then indicated whether they would have intervened in response to the physical altercation. Participants were then required to report their likelihood of intervening in response to a similar situation. Participants reported that they would be less likely to intervene in a similar situation when ingroup confederates reported that they would not intervene, compared to when ingroup confederates reported that they would intervene. In a follow-up study, other participants watched a similar video clip. One group of participants was instructed that the victim of the physical altercation was a student from the same university (ingroup); the remaining participants were advised that the victim was from another university (outgroup). Findings revealed that when the victim was described as an outgroup member, participants reported that they would be less likely to intervene, compared to when the victim was described as an ingroup member (Levine et al., 2002). Situations in which the bystander effect is likely to occur, pose implications for initiatives to reduce its incidence and increase altruistic behaviour.

Such interventions could be taught in religious education and social studies classes at schools. This would serve to educate children about altruism and community-oriented attitudes from a young age. Such values could be transferred to adulthood. Media advertisements, consisting of altruistic role modelling by celebrities might also be useful in encouraging people to adopt prosocial attitudes. Currently, there seems to be a paucity of published research investigating the effectiveness of education programs, designed to increase altruistic and community-oriented attitudes. Early research by Rosenhan and White (1967) demonstrated that when children observed an adult model donate money to charity, they were more likely to also donate money, both in the presence and absence of the model. In addition, a recent discussion paper by McLennan (2008) suggests that ‘sociodrama’ may have some promise in teaching children altruistic attitudes.

Audience inhibition may pose implications for reducing the bystander effect. Given that this theoretical model stipulates that people are reluctant to intervene and provide assistance, due to concerns about negative evaluation; there may be some scope for interventions, designed to reduce concerns about negative appraisal. For example, cognitive-behavioural techniques could be implemented to assist people with concerns about negative appraisal, after intervening to assist someone. Such techniques could involve exercises to identify and challenge negative ways of thinking, and exercises to replace these with more positive thought patterns (Andrews et al., 2003; Turk, Heimberg, & Hope, 2001). These modalities would enable people to better manage any shame and embarrassment related to concerns about negative appraisal. Although these techniques represent retrospective approaches, it is anticipated that they would reduce the bystander effect, as they would enable people to better manage concerns about negative appraisal. There seems to be limited published research about the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioural techniques in reducing concerns about negative evaluation, and consequently reducing the bystander effect. More research is required in this domain to reduce the incidence of the bystander effect, and increase altruism.

In conclusion, the bystander effect was proposed to explain why people are reluctant to intervene in situations, where a person may require some form of assistance; particularly when other people are present. This discussion has considered several situations where this phenomenon is likely to occur, such as when a person requires assistance in the community and a number of other people are present; when people are concerned that their altruistic behaviour would be negatively appraised; when the costs of intervening outweigh those associated with not intervening; and when people are not able to identify with a person in need of assistance. These situations are important to consider, as they are likely to pose implications for initiatives to reduce the bystander effect and subsequently increase the likelihood of altruistic behaviour. Possible initiatives may involve education programs and role modelling to teach people altruistic and community-oriented attitudes. Additional approaches could involve techniques to assist people manage concerns that their altruistic behaviour might be negatively appraised. The paucity of research considering possible interventions for reducing the bystander effect, and their effectiveness, suggests that more research in these areas is required.

Useful References for The Bystander Effect[edit]

  • Andrews, G., Creamer, M., Crino, R., Hunt, C., Lampe, L., & Page, A. (2003). The treatment of anxiety disorders: Clinician guides and patient manuals (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Barron, G., & Yechiam, E. (2002). Private e-mail requests and the diffusion of responsibility. Computers in Human Behavior, 18, 507-520.
  • Baumeister, R. F. & Bushman, B. J. (2008). Social psychology and human nature. Califronia: Thompson/Wadsworth.
  • Blair, C. A., Thompson, L. F., & Wuensch, K. L. (2005). Electronic helping behavior: The virtual presence of others makes a difference. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 171-178.
  • Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., & Losch, M. E. (1986). Attributions of responsibility for helping and doing harm: Evidence for confusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 100-105.
  • Chekroun, P., & Brauer, M. (2002). The bystander and social control behavior: The effect of the presence of others on people’s reactions to norm violations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32, 853-867.
  • Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.
  • Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., Pollozek, F., & Frey, D. (2006). The unresponsive bystander: Are bystander more responsive in dangerous emergencies. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 267-278.
  • Garcia, S. M., Weaver, K., Darley, J. M., & Moskowitz, G, B. (2002). Crowded minds: The implicit bystander effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 843-853.
  • Hudson, J. M., & Bruckman, A. S. (2004). The bystander effect: A lens for understanding patterns of participation. The journal of the Learning Sciences, 13, 165-195.
  • Karakashian, L. M., Walter, M. I., Christopher, A. N., & Lucas, T. (2006). Fear of negative evaluation affects helping behaviour: The bystander effect revisited. North American Journal of Psychology, 8, 13-32.
  • Kayes, A. B., Kayes, D. C., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Experiential learning in teams. Simulation and Gaming, 36, 330-354.
  • Kerber, K. W. (1984). The perception of nonemergency helping situations: Costs, rewards, and the altruistic personality. Journal of Personality, 52, 177-186.
  • Koenig, L. B., McGue, M., Krueger, R. F., Bouchard, T. J. (2007). Religiousness, antisocial behaviour, and altruism: Genetic and environmental mediation. Journal of Personality, 75, 265-290.
  • Latane, B. & Darley, J. M. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn't he help?. New Jersey: Prentice- Hall.
  • Levine, M., Cassidy, C., Brazier, G., & Reicher, S. (2002). Self-categorization and bystander non-intervention: Two experimental studies. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32, 1452-1463.
  • McLennan, D. M. P. (2008). The benefits of using sociodrama in the elementary classroom: Promoting caring relationships among educators and students. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35, 451-456.
  • Pilianvin, I. M., & Pilianvin, J. A. (1975). Costs, diffusion, and the stigmatized victim. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 429-438.
  • Rosenhan, D., & White, G. M. (1967). Observation and rehearsal as determinants of prosocial behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 424-431.
  • Sagarin, B. J., & Lawler-Sagarin, K. A. (2005). Critically evaluating competing theories: An exercise based on the kitty genovese murder. Teaching of Psychology, 3, 167-169.
  • Thornberg, R. (2007). A classmate in distress: Schoolchildren as bystanders and their reasons for how they act. Social Psychology of Education, 10, 5-28.
  • Turk, C. L., Heimberg, R. G., & Hope, D. A. (2001). Social anxiety disorder. In D.H. Barlow (Ed.), Clinical handbook of psychological disorders: A step-by-step treatment manual (3rd ed.) (pp. 114-153). New York, NY: Guilford.
  • Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D., & Wetherell, M. C. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. New York, NY: Blackwell.

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