The Bystander Effect: A Disturbing Phenomenon


So I just read a disturbing article regarding a two year old child struck by not just one but two vans while others who witnessed just stood around and watched. It’s amazing how the bystander effect can paraylze people to do absolutely nothing while witnessing something tragic happening before their eyes. The childs name is Wang Yue and this happened in China. 18 people were present and did nothing but walked around the blood on the road. She is currently it critical condition at a hospital and who knows if she’ll pull through out of this one. I pray that she does not die because in earnest truth, the 18 that saw her and did nothing will have blood on their hands if she dies. I know what I am saying seems harsh and unfair to point the finger but in doing nothing while being a witness to the whole thing, can you seriously be considered innocent?

Before starting this blog, I considered how angry I was about the idea of how people could just stand there and do nothing as they watched a child get hit by one vehicle and not step in only to watch another vehicle strike the child a second time. However, after further reflection, I can see how possible it is for people to do absolutely nothing even when witness to evil things being done in plain sight. Unfortunately, it is possible for anyone to be a bystander, and this also includes myself. It’s better for me to state the obvious as I am humbled by how the bystander effect can attach itself to anyone. We are not immune to this effect.

A little education: For those of you that do not know what the bystander effect is, by definition it is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases where individuals do not offer any means of help in an emergency situation to the victim when other people are present (wikipedia).

I think what it boils down to is thatpeople are less likely to help when they see other people around”. Does it make this right? NO! But to tell you the truth, when I think about it, anybody can do this including me. I think it’s horrific because we truly do not know how the human mind works when confronted with what I call “impromtu stress”. The stress I am referring to is in regards to a shocking incident or unprecedented event. Such shock can lead one to feel paralyzed from doing anything because the mind can think faster than the body can to move into action.  Let me make it clear that I’m not a psychologist, these inferences that I draw upon are all based on my observations and things I have read regarding the subject. In no way should you regard anything I say as text book fact but it’s just my commentary on the subject ok. let’s continue….

The factors that I think cause people to not move to action could be anyone one of these things that I’m about to list here [take note that this list in not intended to be exhaustive, I’m just chosing what I think are important factors to consider, feel free to comment your thoughts below]:

1. Fear – “What will happen to me if I step in”: Fear should not be underestimated by any circumstance. When we see someone in danger the first thing that kicks in is self-preservation mode. It’s a natural instinct to consider your safety first over others. It may seem selfish but we are all wired that way to a large extent. This instinct hinders us to act on behalf of others and this is not to say that it prevents us from acting but it can be a hinderance to doing so.  Fear also paralyzes a person from acting at all. This does not mean that the person does not want to assist a person in need but it has a power to  prevent us from doing so because of how we conceptualize how danger is associated with pain.

Humans are hard-wired to resist painful things and thus we pursue things that pleasure us. So in an event where trouble is imminent and assistance is required, it is most likely that the unfortunate reaction to occur would be that others would rather choose to tail and run than step out and risk being yet another statistic to a possible tragedy. It is harrowing how the human mind functions on survival and self-preservation mode when faced with danger. They say that the greatest evils appear in the midst of danger. How true this rings with the bystander effect. Also, there are cases where those that step out in good faith are sued by the person they intended to provide assistance. It is a terrible thing to experience but it also can explain why others are deterred to assist others in the first place when the fear of reprisal is factored in as well. People often use this to justify their inaction which is plausible but not right.

2. Apathy- “It’s none of my business”: Another factor to consider is that if the event is not happening to you, then it is not any of your business to care about what is happening to another. This I think is another explanation to the bystander effect. People are selfish at times and can choose to act this way as long as whatever is happening does not affect their sphere of influence (which is their life). This trait saddens me but it is definitely a factor I consider to be a possible explanation to the bystander effect.

3. The idea that “Someone else will step in”: This is also tied in with fear in that people see consequences to actions first before choosing to act. This leaves others expecting someone else to step in especially in the presence of other people. It’s the idea that we don’t have to make the first move when others are clearly present to the current situation. Some underestimate their capabilities of providing assistance in such dire situations, however, this is yet another hinderance to act on someone elses’ behalf. Self-preservation can become selfish to this extent. We remove culpable responsibility from our inaction and deceive ourselves into thinking that “we haven’t harmed anyone by doing nothing”.

Let us make it clear that the harm is in the inaction itself. It’s the omission of the offence not the comission to an act that also counts as a crime to me by social standards. We can be all guilty of this so I won’t water this down just to sleep well at night. This waiting period that happens in an event where someone requires immediate assistance could be the defining moment between life and death for a person. Merely waiting for someone to act and remaining indecisive to take action chips away at the time left for that person’s survival. I pray that we learn what it means to be self-less so that if something were to happen to you, someone would pay it forward.

4. The Hear no Evil, See no Evil, Speak no Evil – until after the fact: Pretending to have absolutely nothing to do with an incident that you were present at also screams selfish. I remember when my sister and I was in a car accident how people stopped and stared at me struggling to get out of the car because I was in shock and how people sped off acting like they didn’t want to be part of that scene. Thankfully there was a guy there who helped us during my car accident and waited with us for 3 whole hours in the cold winter waiting for a cop to arrive since I was rear-ended by an SUV and transit bus. People who witnessed the event ran away accept the guy who helped me and explained what I should do since I’d never been in an accident in my life before. It was terrifying to see how people, though witnesses, act like what they saw and heard had nothing to do with them and walk on by not even offering a hand to help us just because it had nothing to do with them.

In Canada we have Good Samaritan Laws which helps to curb people from being hesistant to help others in distress which accounts to many people being saved since amnesty is given in cases were the one assisted cannot sue the one providing aide. Such a law is instituted in many english common law countries but the practice of it is difficult to measure. The bystander effect is a terrible phenomenon and for me who has experienced it in different cases, it tells me that humanity has a lot to change. Humanity needs to value the life of others as they do value themselves. Life is a gift and we should consider sharing this gift with others and not rob each other of it by regarding others as of less value in human society.

This can explain why so many atrocities continue to this day, because like I said before in a different blog, “Injustice continues when we close our eyes”. However, it doesn’t have to remain that way.We can choose to do the right thing. It’s all up to us to step out and reach out to those that need us the most when the time calls for it. Don’t assume that inaction relieves us from having blood on our hands. We must consider what we do to others can be done back to us one day. You can believe in Karma or whatever, but what we do or choose not to do will hurt us one day, so it’s best to do the very best you can even if it’s just to make a phone call to someone who can better assist in that situation. It’s better than doing absolutely nothing at all and walking on by. People, please don’t have blood on your hands, that’s all I’m saying. Keep it real and choose not to be a bystander.

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