The Bystander Effect

Whilst enjoying dinner with friends last night, the subject of one friends recent experience came up. Whilst eating in a ‘restaurant’, he witnessed an elderly man fall from his chair. Now, as the man was in the outside area and my friend was inside, he rightly assumed that one of the many people in the outside area would come to the man’s aid. He was staggered to realise that no-one did, so immediately went outside to help. The rest of us all then told similar stories of our own and it really was disconcerting to realise how often this sort of thing happens.

This type of incident generally falls under the title of ‘the bystander effect’. Quick disclaimer: I am in no way, shape or form a psychologist, sociologist or any other sort of -ologist, so please remember this is just my take on this phenomenon. 

The bystander effect is essentially what can happen when an incident occurs in a group of people and no one helps or intervenes. Interestingly, the larger the group, the smaller the number of people who will help someone in distress. It seems that this happens for various reasons:  thinking someone else will help; fear of getting involved/hurt themselves; when we don’t see others helping, we subconsciously pick up on the social cues that what is happening is not that significant. For a very brief, layman terms definition of the bystander effect try this link:

So what makes people, like my friend, help in such a situation and seemingly be immune to the bystander effect? That is a tricky question, one I’m certain I am not qualified to answer but…see disclaimer above….I think it must just come down to who you are eg your confidence as a person, probably a certain amount of leadership qualities and a willingness to go out on a limb for a fellow human being.

What I find most interesting is that if asked the question “Would you go to the aid of someone in distress in a public area?” most of us would say yes. So, if most of us think that in our head, why does that not transpose to real life situations?  There are many legitimate reasons why we may not rush to help someone. For instance, it’s far better to alert the authorities than become involved in a domestic argument. Also, if there is a real danger to yourself, or your children, for example, at a car accident it may not be safe to approach the car.

Really, we need to be sensible when dealing with people and situations we don’t know. However, I can see no detrimental effect on my friend for having helped an elderly man back up onto his chair and ensuring he was not hurt. Maybe we are so full of bravado for all the ‘big’ situations we would help in eg the floods, that we are forgetting to help in small kindnesses.

I vote we all take a stand against the bystander effect and not hesitate to help where we can….isn’t there something about ‘do unto others…..’ written somewhere?

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