Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Bystander intervention motivation

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Bystander intervention motivation:
Why do some people choose to get involved whilst others don't? 

Overview[edit | edit source]

On the 13th of March, 1964, 38 bystanders watched on as a young woman was raped and brutally stabbed to death outside her apartment in Kew Gardens, New York. The murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese triggered a wave of controversy surrounding the seemingly apathetic nature of the human condition; How could 38 people witness a murder and do nothing?

In recent years, a number of inaccuracies concerning the Genovese case have come to light including information that some witnesses did in fact attempt to help (Lurigio, 2015). Nonetheless, the idea that people could witness a terrible crime and choose not to intervene led social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané to begin research on the bystander intervention effect.

In order to understand what motivates bystander intervention and answer the question of why some people choose to get involved whilst others do not; the bystander effect, the influence of an active versus passive bystander, and the effect gender roles and stereotypes have on motivating or inhibiting bystander intervention will be discussed[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Particular attention will be paid to the implications this research may have, and how we (as bystanders) can motivate action to better our lives and the lives of those around us. 

Bystander effect[edit | edit source]

"The world is a dangerous place. Not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing" - Albert Einstein

In 1968, Darley and Latané were unsatisfied with the conclusion that no-one helped Kitty Genovese because humans were simply apathetic to one another. As such, they proposed the true explanation involved the bystander effect, a phenomenon in which the presence of other bystanders decreases helping behaviour.    

A number of studies have found empirical evidence for this phenomenon both in experimental conditions and real-life settings. Typically, researchers study the bystander effect by comparing participant’s[grammar?] reactions to possible emergencies when alone or in the presence of passive bystanders (Fischer et al., 2011).

In the classic experiment by Darley and Latané (1968) participants were asked to communicate via telephone to another participant (confederate). During the conversation, the confederate sounded as if they were experiencing a seizure and the participant’s reactions were recorded. They found that when participants were alone they were more likely to intervene (85%) than when they were in the presence of other passive bystanders (31%). [For more information see The Bystander Effect: The Death of Kitty Genovese in external links

In the real-world, the National Crime Victimisation Survey (NCVS) found that bystanders are present for approximately 66% of all violent crimes (Planty, 2002). Despite this, victims report that when bystanders were present they were likely to help the situation (36%), make the situation worse (11%), or in most cases choose not to intervene (44%) (Planty, 2002). As it were, individuals are less likely to intervene even in emergency situations when other bystanders are present. In fact, Darley and Latané (1968) concluded that the more bystanders present in an emergency the less likely it is that any one of them will help. But why are bystanders refusing to help in these situations?

Situational model of bystander intervention[edit | edit source]

Darley and Latané identified three psychological processes that interfere with bystanders' motivation to intervene, these are diffusion of responsibility, evaluation apprehension, and pluralistic ignorance (Fischer et al., 2011). 

Diffusion of responsibility[edit | edit source]

When bystanders are (or perceived to be) present in an emergency situation, the responsibility of intervening and the blame of non-intervention is divided between observers (Greitemeyer & Mugge, 2013). Simply put, an individual is less likely to intervene or offer help in situations when others are present because the individual assumes that someone else will or has already done so (Thornberg et al., 2012). With this reasoning, individuals feel that their help is redundant and dispensable, thus, not intervening is considered the rational choice (Greitemeyer & Mugge, 2013). Unfortunately, Darley and Latané (1968) found that when responsibility is diffused among observers, no-one helps. 

Evaluation apprehension[edit | edit source]

Individuals are less likely to intervene for fear or negative social evaluations. According to Fischer et al. (2011), helping behaviour is inhibited when individuals fear they will make mistakes or be unsuccessful in their endeavours which may result in public humiliation or ridicule. As such, non-intervention is seen as a safe way to preserve one’s self-concept and esteem (Darley & Latané, 1968).

Pluralistic ignorance[edit | edit source]

In situations where the emergency is clearly evident (e.g., car crashes, bleeding victims) people are likely to interpret the event as needing possible intervention (Rendsvig, 2014). However, when the situation is ambiguous individuals seek out social proof and look to others to assess whether the situation is indeed an emergency or not (Fischer et al., 2011). If no-one intervenes, that becomes the social norm and the situation is regarded as less critical resulting in typical bystander effects (Greitemeyer & Mugge, 2013). Essentially, everyone makes an assumption about what other people are thinking and feeling and often conclude that if no-one is acting to help, no intervention is required (Rendsvig, 2014). However, people may not be responding to the situation as a result of audience inhibition (not wanting to stand out and face possible negative evaluations) or doubt (not wanting to cause panic for a false alarm) (Rendsvig, 2014).

Other influences[edit | edit source]

In order for bystanders to intervene, they must successfully navigate through the five stages of Darley and Latané's model of bystander intervention (Burn, 2009). Unfortunately, Burn (2009) identified a number of barriers that interfere with each of these stages which result in the bystander effect.

Table 1. Barriers to bystander intervention and contributing influences

Situational stage Barrier Influences
1. Notice the event Failure to notice event Sensory distractions, attention is focused on the self or elsewhere.
2. Interpret event as an emergency Failure to interpret event as a high-risk situation Situation is ambiguous, pluralistic ignorance
3. Take personal responsibility Failure to take responsibility Diffusion of responsibility, relationship with victim/perpetrator, worthiness of actions (deeming involvement as redundant or unhelpful).
4. Decide how to help Failure to intervene due to skill-deficiency Action ignorance (not knowing what to say or do), low self-efficacy, other situation/circumstance that cause the individual to evaluate themselves as lacking the skill necessary to intervene successfully.
5. Act to intervene Failure to intervene due to audience inhibition Social norms, evaluation apprehension

Active versus passive bystanders[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Passive bystanders reinforcing bullying behaviour

An active bystander, as defined by Abbott and Cameron (2014), is an individual who attempts to intervene in the situation either directly or indirectly. Direct intervention often requires the individual to possess skill, knowledge or physical power (e.g., breaking up a fight, swimming to save someone drowning) (Darley & Latané, 1968). However, it can also include behaviours such as confronting a bully or comforting a victim (Abbott & Cameron, 2014). Indirect interventions do not necessarily require specific qualifications or skills as individuals deal with the emergency by calling for help or seeking out others that are likely to help the situation (e.g., police, teacher, parent) (Darley & Latané, 1968).      

Unfortunately, more often than not, people assume the role of a passive bystander, an individual who fails to intervene in the situation (Abbott & Cameron, 2014). The presence of passive bystanders can further inhibit helping behaviour or (because of their lack of involvement) be seen as silently encouraging the perpetrator to continue (Malti, Strohmeier, & Killen, 2015). 

Expectancy theory[edit | edit source]

One reason bystanders refuse to get involved is related to the goal-expectancy theory proposed by Victor Vroom. In bullying incidents and other emergency situations, people are faced with a social dilemma in which they make decisions based on their own self-interests (Kohm, 2015). According to the theory, people are likely to remain passive in these situations because they have low expectations that others will join them and that their efforts alone will be unsuccessful in achieving the desired outcome (Kohm, 2015). In addition to this, people may be unwilling to get involved in situations that pose potential risks to themselves. For example, a child may hesitate to stand up to a school bully for fear of becoming a target themselves (Doramajian & Bukowski, 2015). Furthermore, bullies often have higher social status and power than their victims, so a child witnessing such behaviour not only risks becoming a target but also faces possible social exclusion for siding with the 'weaker' party (Abbott and Cameron, 2014). When individuals expect their actions or involvement to cause more harm than good they avoid these situations to prevent the expected outcome (Hamby, Weber, Grych, & Banyard, 2016). However, bystanders are more likely to help the situation when they become involved (36%) than make it worse (11%) (Planty, 2002).

Social cognitive theory[edit | edit source]

Apart from people’s expectations, another influence on bystander motivation is the individual’s self-efficacy and morality. According to Bandura’s social cognitive theory, self-efficacy plays an important role in motivating behaviour (Thornberg et al., 2012). Essentially, an individual’s belief that they can successfully intervene determines whether or not they will. For example, research finds that active bystanders are more likely to be people who are specifically trained or qualified to deal with emergency situations and as such have high self-efficacy (Hamby et al., 2016). It is not surprising that people who believe they do not possess the appropriate skills to intervene successfully (low self-efficacy) prefer to avoid the situation and leave it to someone more qualified (Thornberg et al., 2012).

When a bystander remains passive to the situation, the individual continues to experience conflict and a state of indecision about whether or not they should intervene (Darley & Latané, 1968). In order to deal with these feelings of guilt, social cognitive theory proposes an individual will engage in moral disengagement, a self-regulatory cognitive strategy that is used when one’s actions do not match their moral beliefs (Doramajian & Bukowski, 2015). Moral disengagement has been negatively associated with helping behaviour as people defend their inaction and aggressive acts by avoiding the situation, blaming the victim or diffusing the responsibility (Thornberg et al., 2012).

Gender roles and differences[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. The bystander effect influences both men and women, but there are gender differences concerning the barriers that inhibit helping

Research on the bystander effect has shown that the likelihood of an individual helping in an emergency (e.g., bullying, or asthma attack) or mundane situation (e.g., someone drops their books, or answering a door) decreases when other people are present (Fischer et al., 2011). This phenomenon occurs regardless of sex with both males and females showing a decrease in helping behaviour when other bystanders are present (Fischer et al., 2011).

In general, both men and women report that the likelihood of them intervening in an emergency situation increases when the victim or perpetrator are known (Burn, 2009). In particular, Fleming and Wiersma-Mosley (2015) found that women were more likely to intervene in situations of sexual and physical assault if they knew the victim or offender. However, they were less likely to intervene if the perpetrator was unknown or been drinking. In contrast, they found that men were likely to intervene in situations of physical assault regardless of if they knew those involved or not, but were less likely to intervene in acts of sexual assault.

Burn (2009) proposed these gender differences in response to sexual and physical assault are a consequence of the barriers to bystander intervention. Specifically, men are less likely to intervene as a result of failing to take responsibility and/or audience inhibition (Burn, 2009). Women, on the other hand, may fail to intervene as a result of skill-deficiency (Burn, 2009).  

Failure to take responsibility[edit | edit source]

Men may fail to take responsibility as a consequence of victim blaming. Carlson (2008) found that men were more likely to remain passive bystanders when witnessing a fight between strangers because “The guy was probably asking for it” (p. 6). Men are more likely than women to avoid intervening in these situations by using this type of reasoning (Carlson, 2008). In particular, men were more likely to believe rape myths (e.g., the woman was dressed provocatively so she was "asking for it") than women, who were more likely to know the risks of sexual assault and see it as an emergency situation that requires intervention (Burn, 2009).

Another reason men may fail to take responsibility in these situations is that they have been socialised to believe that men act the way they do because of testosterone and it is simply a matter of “boys being boys” (Carlson, 2008). This type of reasoning leads to a decrease in responsibility as the event is deemed uncontrollable, therefore intervention is meaningless (Burn, 2009).

Figure 4. Women are less likely to help in situations requiring physical strength and power

Failure to intervene due to skill-deficiency[edit | edit source]

Skill-deficiency is an important barrier to bystander motivation, with research showing people rarely intervene in situations they believe they cannot successfully handle (Thornberg et al., 2012). Women are more likely than men to fail to intervene in a situation as a consequence of skill-deficiency (Burn, 2009). In fact, Fischer et al. (2011) found that the bystander effect is stronger in women than it is in men particularly when there is no male bystanders present. This is because women have less physical strength than men and there may be higher costs associated with intervening for women particularly when dealing with a potential perpetrator (Fischer et al., 2011).

In addition to this, women tend to rely more on indirect methods of intervention (e.g., calling the police or seeking assistance) than men who use more direct methods (Darley & Latané, 1968). From an early age, men are socialised to see action as the appropriate way of dealing with a situation (Carlson, 2008). As such, when faced with a situation that requires heroic action or strength women are more likely to avoid intervening as they believe they would be at a disadvantage while men are less likely to be hindered by this barrier (Burn, 2009).           

Failure to intervene due to audience inhibition[edit | edit source]

Social pressure on men to conform with stereotypical masculinity also plays a role in motivating bystander intervention. Social pressures discourage men from appearing weak or feminine and encourage behaviours that involve physical strength, dominance, status and power (Leone, Parrott, Swartout, & Tharp, 2016). Men who identify strongly with the norms of masculinity (e.g., do not be weak, exert dominance over others) are less inclined to intervene in situations where a woman may be sexually assaulted (Leone et al., 2016). This is because among some men the social norm is to support or not interfere with another man’s sexual conquest, and there may be high social costs to masculinity if they do (Fleming & Wiersma-Mosley, 2015). In support of this, fear of appearing weak or unmasculine in front of other men was identified as the number one reason men refuse to intervene in these situations (Carlson, 2008).  

Nonetheless, it is unfair to say that all men would fail to intervene in situations of sexual assault. In fact, when researchers simulate rape scenarios they find that male bystanders are more likely to intervene even in the presence of other men (Fischer et al., 2011; Carlson, 2008). As it were, male bystanders are likely to intervene in situations of sexual assault when it occurs in a public place (with both males and females present) or if the man perceives themselves to be of higher status than the perpetrator (Carlson, 2008).

High-status men are less likely to be hindered by audience inhibition because intervening fits their masculine stereotype of dominating over others (including other men), being heroic and protecting women (Carlson, 2008). Thus, audience inhibition is more likely to inhibit bystander intervention when the assault occurs in a private setting, the man perceives themselves as having lower status or power, or if the man is exclusively in the presence of other men (Carlson, 2008).    

Implications[edit | edit source]

Figure 5. Volunteers helping after a natural disaster

Bystander motivation to intervene can be inhibited by a number of influences. Despite this, there are still cases of people (even in the presence of bystanders) offering their help. For example, Fischer et al. (2011) reported the case of a young man who despite the risks to himself and in the presence of passive bystanders, chose to intervene to protect a young Greek man who was being chased and beaten by a group of skinheads. In addition to this, there are acts of people helping others every day, whether it is changing someone’s tyre, donating to charity or assisting in a natural disaster. In fact, helping behaviour is so pronounced in the world that researchers have also identified the positive bystander effect.

Positive bystander effect[edit | edit source]

During dangerous situations or events that require more than one helper, the bystander effect does not occur (Fischer et al., 2011). During these situations, research suggests that the presence of other bystanders actually increases helping behaviour (Fischer & Greitemeyer, 2013). This is because, according to the arousal cost-reward model, dangerous situations are recognised more clearly as emergencies because of the aversive arousal the situation causes (Fischer et al., 2011). To reduce this feeling, the individual attempts to resolve the problem by helping (Fischer et al., 2011). However, in dangerous situations, the problem may only be resolved with group effort (Fischer & Greitemeyer, 2013). As such, bystander motivation to intervene increases because additional bystanders are seen as sources of support rather than people who can take the responsibility (Greitemeyer & Mugge, 2013). Furthermore, when group effort is needed people are no longer hinder by evaluation apprehension because they believe they will not be evaluated by others when acting within a group (Greitemeyer & Mugge, 2013).

Based on this [which?] research a number of bystander programs to prevent acts of bullying, violence and sexual assault have been created (Kleinsasser, Jouriles, McDonald, & Rosenfield, 2015). Intervention programs designed to prevent sexual assault, focus on strategies that identify risky situations beforehand and aim to reconstruct the way men view masculinity (Leone et al., 2016). In general though, bystander intervention programs target bystanders as agents of action and aim to increase pro-social behaviour by educating people about the barriers to bystander intervention and identifying practical skills they can engage in to intervene (Kleinsasser et al., 2015).  

Kleinsasser et al. (2015) Take CARE Bystander Intervention




Effective action

Direct, delegate, distract

The power of one[edit | edit source]

The positive bystander effect is reassuring, knowing that we can count on others when the situation is indeed serious. However, the bystander effect still occurs and despite prevention methods directly targeting bystanders, this phenomenon can still be observed.

Thankfully, it only takes one. Phillip Zimbardo and Ken Brown [see external links both discuss the power of one in that it only takes one person to decide to intervene and others will follow. Fischer et al. (2011) found that when one bystander chose to intervene the bystander effect was reversed in that other people were more likely to offer help than passively stand by and do nothing. As it were, when a person decides to intervene, pluralistic ignorance is countered as others realise that an intervention is required (Rendsvig, 2014). For example, in 2014 during the Sydney siege one twitter user sent a message to the Muslims in her community reassuring them that they did not have to be afraid because #illridewithyou. This act caused a ripple effect with many Australians and other people around the world offering to help in the same way.

Figure 6. Helping each other is a part of the human condition

In order to intervene we will have to overcome uncertainty, take responsibility and act accordingly- this is not impossible. Darley and Latané (1968) believed that if people understood the situational forces that caused them to hesitate and prevented them from intervening they would be able to overcome them. Research supports this notion, with studies showing that when people are informed of the bystander effect, made aware of the barriers to intervention, and taught how to intervene successfully they are more likely to engage in pro-social behaviours and increase their helping behaviour (Fischer et al., 2011; Kleinsasser et al., 2015; Burn, 2009). 

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

There are several forces that may prevent a person from intervening in a situation where they could help. Many people will justify this inaction by telling themselves that no-one else is intervening so they do not have to, however, this is not always the case. This is the bystander effect which causes people to make poor assumptions, conform to those around them and avoid taking responsibility. Hopefully after reading this chapter we can be better prepared to notice this phenomenon occurring and step in to be that one person needed to promote a social change and come to a person's aid. In these situations, whether mundane or serious, we can choose to be active bystanders that are motivated to intervene and inspire others to do so to.

"For every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness" -- Martin Luther King

See also[edit | edit source]

Bullying and social needs (Book chapter, 2016)

Emotion and helping (Book chapter, 2013)

Extreme altruism (Book chapter, 2016)

Rape motivation (Book chapter, 2015)

References[edit | edit source]

Abbott, N., & Cameron, L. (2014). What makes a young assertive bystander? The effect of intergroup contact, empathy, cultural openness, and in-group bias on assertive bystander intervention intentions. Journal of Social Issues, 70(1), 167-182. DOI:10.1111/josi.12053

Burn, S. M. (2009). A situational model of sexual assault prevention through bystander intervention. Sex Roles, 60, 779–792. DOI:10.1007/s11199-008-9581-5

Carlson, M. (2008). I’d rather go along and be considered a man: Masculinity and bystander intervention. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 16(1), 3-17. DOI:10.3149/jms.1601.3 

Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 377–383. DOI:10.1037/h0025589 

Doramajian, C., & Bukowski, W. M. (2015). A longitudinal study of the associations between moral disengagement and active defending versus passive bystanding during bullying situations. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 61(1), 144–172. DOI:10.13110/merrpalmquar1982.61.1.0144

Fischer, P., & Greitemeyer, T. (2013). The positive bystander effect: Passive bystanders increase helping in situations with high expected negative consequences for the helper. The Journal of Social Psychology, 153(1), 1-5. DOI:10.1080/00224545.2012.697931

Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmuller, A., Frey, D., … Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 517-537. DOI:10.1037/a0023304

Fleming, W. M., & Wiersma-Mosley, J. D. (2015). The role of alcohol consumption patterns and pro-social bystander interventions in contexts of gender violence. Violence Against Women, 21(10), 1259-1283. DOI:10.1177/1077801215592721

Greitemeyer, T., & Mugge, D. (2013). Rational bystanders. British Journal of Social Psychology, 52(4), 773–780. DOI:10.1111/bjso.12036

Hamby, S., Weber, M. C., Grych, J., & Banyard, V. (2016). What difference do bystanders make? The association of bystander involvement with victim outcomes in a community sample. Psychology of Violence, 6(1), 91-102. DOI:10.1037/a0039073

Kleinsasser, A., Jouriles, E. N., McDonald, R., & Rosenfield, D. (2015). An online bystander intervention program for the prevention of sexual violence. Psychology of Violence, 5(3), 227-235. DOI:10.1037/a0037393

Kohm, A. (2015). Childhood bullying and social dilemmas. Aggressive Behaviour, 41(2), 97-108. DOI:10.1002/AB.21579

Leone, R. M., Parrott, D., J., Swartout, K. M., & Tharp, A. T. (2016). Masculinity and bystander attitudes: Moderating effects of masculine gender role stress. Psychology of Violence, 6(1), 82-90. DOI:10.1037/a0038926

Lurigio, A. J. (2015). Crime narratives, dramatizations, and the legacy of the Kitty Genovese murder: A half century of half truths. Criminal Justice and Behaviour, 42, 782-789. DOI:10.1177/0093854814562954.

Malti, T., Strohmeier, D., & Killen, M. (2015). The impact of onlooking and including bystander behaviour on judgments and emotions regarding peer exclusion. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 33(3), 295-311. DOI:10.1111/bjdp.12090

Planty, M. (2002). Bureau of justice statistics special report: Third-party involvement in violent crime, 1993–99. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.

Rendsvig, R. K. (2014). Pluralistic ignorance in the bystander effect: Informational dynamics of unresponsive witnesses in situations calling for intervention. Synthese, 191(11), 2471–2498. DOI:10.1007/s11229-014-0435-0

Thornberg, R., Tenenbaum, L., Varjas, K., Meyers, J., Jungert, T., & Vanegas, G. (2012). Bystander Motivation in Bullying Incidents: To Intervene or Not to Intervene?. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, 13(3), 247-252. DOI:10.5811/westjem.2012.3.11792

External links[edit | edit source]

Dr. Philip Zimbardo | The Bystander Effect Bystander revolution, 2016.

Much of What You Know About the "Bystander Effect" Is Wrong by Ken Brown, TEDx Talks, July 12, 2015.

The Bystander Effect: The Death of Kitty Genovese by HeroicImaginationTV, May 13, 2012.