The bystander effect: How our (in)actions shape history

From not reporting ideas in the workplace to not protesting a large-scale loss of individual rights and liberties, bystanders play an important role in how personal and global events unfold.

This post is also available in Dutch.

In a half-hearted attempt to blog about science, I stare at my keyboard watching the Formula1 of thoughts racing around my head. No topic can surpass the blue-and-yellow frontrunner: Ukraine. To not write about this would leave me feeling incurious and callous. Yet how can I bring this seemingly unscientific event into the fold of science communication? What could I, a spectator scientist, even bring to the geopolitical discussion table?

In the past weeks, I’ve noticed a similarly distant, indifferent attitude in social conversations about Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Despite the deluge of news coverage on Ukraine, most of us remain passive. Why? This indifference could be related to a commonly occurring psychological phenomenon: the bystander effect. Inaction in times of crisis may be due to perceiving other people’s indifference to an emergency, leading to personal disengagement.

What is the bystander effect?

Psychologists popularized this concept after a 1964 murder in New York City: A 28-year-old woman screamed for half an hour as a man stabbed her to death outside her apartment. Newspapers reported that dozens of her neighbors watched and inexplicably failed to step in to assist or call the police. A quick Google search will produce numerous other real examples, including a local assault in Nijmegen in 2020. Psychologists attribute the bystander effect to diffusion of responsibility (the more onlookers there are, the less personal responsibility individuals will feel to take action) and social influence (individuals monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act). Some researchers theorize that the presence of other bystanders may actually enhance personal distress, leading to fixed action patterns of avoidance and freezing. However, a large analysis of studies on the bystander effect found that when an event becomes threatening enough, people do recognize “dangerous” emergencies more quickly as “real” emergencies, resulting in even higher group arousal and more helping behavior. The question then becomes: How dangerous does an emergency (like war in a distant country) have to be before individuals are spurred into action?

The above video neatly summarizes the bystander effect. For intervention to occur, the bystander needs to (1) notice a critical situation, (2) construe the situation as an emergency, (3) develop a feeling of personal responsibility, (4) believe that he or she has the skills necessary to succeed, and (5) reach a conscious decision to help.

One can historically observe a bystander effect regarding societal issues or global events. The most prominent example is the Holocaust: Friends, neighbors, and entire nations looked on in silence at the genocide of millions. Bystanders claimed that the risk of resistance was too high, doubting what anyone could have done under the circumstances. Even now, we lack the wherewithal to respond to others’ suffering around the world. Our hesitancy might be because we don’t feel personally responsible (we’re sure someone else will help), people in our social circles show little activism (we mirror their behavior), or we feel so overwhelmed that we do nothing.

Do something.

In frightening times, the influence of personal action carries even greater weight. Individual decisions can impact social groups and national governments. By actively informing ourselves, spreading awareness, sending aid, or participating in civic action, our acceptance of responsibility and personal engagement ensures that individual and national rights and freedoms are upheld for others and, by extension, for ourselves.


Author: Christienne Damatac
Buddy: Martina Arenella
Editor: Marisha Manahova
Dutch translation: Wessel Hieselaar
Dutch editor translation: Marlijn ter Bekke

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