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Walk on by: Will There Ever Be a Tipping Point for the “Bystander Effect”?

The “bystander effect” was in our collective face in the past couple of weeks. If life were a film series, viewers might think that the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder had been remade for another generation to view. In 1964, no one called for help, even though there were witnesses who heard and saw the situation. Help didn’t arrive for an hour and the case inspired social psychology to put on its boots and investigate.

The “bystander effect” was in our collective face in the past couple of weeks. If life were a film series, viewers might think that the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder had been remade for another generation to view. In 1964, no one called for help, even though there were witnesses who heard and saw the situation. Help didn’t arrive for an hour and the case inspired social psychology to put on its boots and investigate.

This new murder, also in New York City, had some of the same elements, including witnesses who walked on by and a wait of over an hour for official help to arrive. This time, a man who went to help the victim was stabbed to death. The murderer got away and the woman is nowhere to be found. But the twofer twist on the theme drives home the issue of bystanding in a way that may stick with us longer.

Bystanders might be surprised to find that, in the language of those who study bullying, they occupy a point on the continuum that runs from bully to victim. Researchers Amanda B. Siebecker and Susan M. Swearen contributed an article in the “Encyclopedia of Cross-Cultural School Psychology” written by Caroline Clauss-Ehlers. They see bystanders on the continuum falling into two categories: the passive bystanders who just observe and do nothing and the active ones who either help the victim, or take the other role and egg on the bully. The other two roles are bully and bully victim, the latter being a victim who then turns around and bullies others. In the ages when these are students, the roles are not fixed yet and so students play out more than one of them.

There is no such thing as “just an innocent bystander.” We Are All Bystanders” was even the title of a column by editors Dacher Keltner Ph.D. and Jason Marsh in their magazine Greater Good.

We have to wonder: Why do people walk on by? The self-examination goes on for three or four days in the company of news anchors and guest psychologists and then it is over. Until the next time.

Mathematical projections help us understand and observers of the human condition offer explanations, but knowing that passive bystanding takes place is not enough to effect changes.

Social scientists have categorized some reasons that people do nothing in the face of emergency. Studies show that “diffusion of responsibility” and “confusion of responsibility” are key reasons that bystanders remain passive. But even understanding that is not sufficient for significant changes. To make any change in social norms go viral, there has to be a critical mass whose behavior is now different.

In his book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell discusses Hush Puppies shoes. Their popularity went viral in 1994-1995, even though no one set out to make them popular. They caught on at a time when their manufacturer was considering dropping them from the line because they just were not selling. Ironically at the time and an interesting footnote to school programs about bullying, a few kids in New York began wearing them just because they were not the thing to wear. But the fad made a leap just because they were seen around town and Hush Puppies began to be worn at bars and club.

Then a couple of fashion designers saw them. A designer in Los Angeles put the Hush Puppy trademark mascot on top of his store and celebrities jumped on the bandwagon. Sales jumped to over ten times their usual rate and the manufacturer won a design award for them. Not long before, they had been definitely out of style. They had reached a critical mass somewhere between 1994 and 1995.

That is what those who study the “bystander effect” want to happen. Gladwell calls the threshold at which change takes place “the tipping point.” His analysis of Paul Revere’s ride contains another nugget of truth transferable to bystanding. The circumstances catch the imagination – a secret lantern code, riding around a semi-settled countryside all night, one rugged individual warning against an armed multitude. In turn, they inspired a long poem that everyone reads in elementary school, a kind of Tom Clancy paperback of its day. Besides, Revere was a socially well-connected guy. All this helps explain why most people don’t remember the other guy who rode that night.

The poem, the ride and Revere himself have become part of the national narrative. To change the social norms surrounding what it means to be a bystander, the national narrative – what we tell ourselves about who we are as a culture – may have to change, also.

That feeds into still another Gladwell parallel: that in changing social norms, it matters who is delivering the message. Conferences and clearinghouse can be a great first step. They get the word out. Rock stars of bullying research like Jean M. Alberti Ph.D. and Dorothy Esepelage Ph.D. give both their imprimatur and their knowledge to support programs that inch by inch work their way toward a tipping point. (1)

Add to that, also, studies done in Europe. They could be considered part of the critical mass even if their outcomes may not match each specific parameter of US educational systems. Humanity is a broad spectrum and like broad-spectrum antibiotics, remedies suggested by studies done elsewhere may counteract other, related situations of the human condition.

Getting the public at large to act differently as well as think differently is a horse of a different color. To get to that point, the peer group itself has to interpret a different kind of action as “cool.” Highly social, well-connected people who already are persuasive in their peer group are instrumental, even crucial, in bringing about change because they already are perceived as cool. As researchers provide the tools for becoming active bystanders, the in-group can stand at the crossroads handing them out to the right mentors. At the opening of the Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence at the University at Buffalo in April, 2010, the presenters agreed that while “it takes a village” to make changes, peer group members are crucial to success.

Why do bystanders choose not to step forward? After the Genovese murder, researchers John Darley and Bibb Latane found that when there are more than two or three witnesses, each individual feels less responsibility – what is called “the diffusion of responsibility” – to do anything about the situation. It is easy to latch onto everyday, common-sense ideas to explain how that can happen: Everyone thinks that someone else will help.(2)

Further, if one person sees the situation as a nonemergency and doesn’t act, then others have permission to do the same. These kinds of reasons are referred to as “pluralistic ignorance.” But even if there is just one other person with you, the degree of your own participation may depend on how that person responds to what looks or sounds like an emergency.

Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Ervin Staub studied specifically why people don’t do anything when they know something is going on.(3) In one experiment, two people working on a task together heard an experimenter-generated crash in the next room and someone crying out. One of the two people was in on the experiment. That person told the uninformed subject that the crash and cry was probably part of the experiment. As a result, about one quarter of this group of paired subjects went into the other room to check to see what had happened.

But, then, in version two of the experiment, the person in the know said something sympathetic about the situation. The result: Two-thirds of the pairs went into the next room to check. In the third version, when the person in the know suggested that they go into the next room to check, all the pairs did so.

The subject who didn’t know what was going on was a bystander in two ways. He heard the crash and the cry and he also heard the other witness interpret the sounds. For changing social norms: What might happen if we chose to be the person who says something to the other witnesses to influence them? And why might we not choose that role either?

Staub took his research into this area, too. People who score well on a survey he developed have a predisposition for active bystanding. They show a more acute concern for others, think in ways that are socially responsible and are attached to values that would be considered moral. What’s more, Staub’s work also demonstrated that these high scorers actually are more likely to help others. Another book is due out this summer: “Mass violence: Prevention and reconciliation.”

In this area of research, there is evidence that empathy can be developed and learned. Two grants from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine provided partial support for a study at the University of Wisconsin about compassion meditation, also called metta or loving kindness meditation, as it affects empathy. What made it unique was that 16 Tibetan monks participated in it, matched with 16 nonmeditators who were taught the principles just two weeks prior to the experiment. The researchers wanted to see if the areas of the brain that are active in compassion meditation were affected by their training. They were.(4)

Another study published in 1999 showed that having mom or dad sit down and read with elementary school kids also had positive effects on preventing aggression and violence. “Bullies, Victims and Bystanders: A Method of In-School Intervention and Possible Parental Contributions” was published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development and the researchers even prognosticated, “children who were not read to by their parents often become bullies and/or victims of bullies.” In the schools were this study was done, the suspension rate and violence decreased.

Studies in schools in England, Australia and Italy have looked at developing bystander interaction with the victim. In the Italian study, friendliness, conscientiousness and energy were found to be traits of students who were active bystanders.(5)

Sociologist Samuel Oliner, like Staub, was a Holocaust survivor. Keltner and Marsh quote Oliner on the attributes of an active bystander. Beyond just having predictable personality traits, rescuers, he said, “don’t see helping as a choice … [R]escuers see tragedy and feel no choice but to get involved. How could they stand by and let another person perish?”

But even if active bystanders interpret emergencies accurately, speak up even if it might be different from what the group is thinking and then act, it is in the face of still another issue: What if they put themselves in danger by doing so?

The confusion of responsibility is one such danger. It is the reason that people say, “I don’t want to get involved,” and it is not unfounded. Research shows that sometimes people are incorrectly labeled as a cause when they were just a witness. In a study that was reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in January 1986, evidence with 356 undergraduates in two experiments showed that the more passive bystanders there were at the scene of an accident, the more an individual helping the victim was likely to be attributed to be the cause – by a newly arrived onlooker.(6)

The toolbox for active bystanding should also contain an action plan. One model for adults could be cognitive thinking guidelines created to empower cancer patients. A study published September 9, 2009, is entitled “Cancer Health Empowerment for Living without Pain (Ca-HELP).” In it, the word “empowerment” has made its way into the name of a plan with six parts: assess, correct, teach, prepare, rehearse and portray. These could be applied with little change to assessing any situation that requires personal decision making on the way to taking action.

Toward a possible solution:

  1. Include in bullying prevention programs some student mentors whom students themselves identify as cool.
  2. Develop the impulse of good will through empathy training. Simultaneously develop the role of an active bystander through action steps learned by training, rehearsal and repetition.
  3. Recognize that values come largely from home and the community outside of school. They are played out in school because that is where students spend a great number of hours per day.
  4. Involve parents and community organizations that interact with students outside of school. They influence positive values by their relationships and by modeling behavior in the outside world.
  5. Support the feeling that human beings are connected by their humanity. This means that we all have lives to live that are meaningful in their own ways.
  6. Study theories, studies and conclusions about related issues, resources and solutions developed by other countries, along with creating our own studies and centers of excellence.
  7. Promote a national narrative that demonstrates that we value being inclusive and helpful. Legitimize the understanding that these qualities are not mutually exclusive with competition and leadership.
  8. Retrain organizations that support the division, control or psychological maneuvering of society through bullying or encouraging others to bully.

If we all applied the “Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others” rule, the bystander effect would improve even then. No one expects fools to rush in where angels fear to tread.

The oxygen mask rule assumes that, of course, you would give any needed help to those around you. Similarly, if you are sitting in an airplane seat next to the passenger emergency exit, the flight attendant asks prior to takeoff if you are willing and able to open it in an emergency. If you would not be able to, then you are asked to change seats with someone who can.

Why does that system work? Because it is an emergency course in being an active bystander. When it comes to facing collective danger in a common carrier – or real life – we are all really in the same boat.


(1) Zemel, Linda Chalmer. UB opens its new Center for violence prevention with a symposium of experts. April 27, 2010.
(2) Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. and Jason Marsh, “We Are All Bystanders: Greater Good,” Volume III, Issue 2: Fall/Winter 2006-07 Greater Good Magazine.
(3) Staub, Ervin Ph.D, “The Psychology of Good and Evil: Why Children, Adults and Groups Help and Harm Others,” Cambridge University Press, 2003.
(4) Lutz, Antoine et al, “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Mediative Expertise.” Published online 2008 March 26. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001897.
(5) Tani, Franca et al, “A Study of Childhood Personality and Participant Roles in Bullying Incidents,” University of Florence, Florence, Italy. School Psychology International, Vol. 24, No. 2, 131-146 (2003). DOI: 10.1177/0143034303024002001
(6) Cacioppo, John T.; Petty, Richard E.; Losch, Mary E, “Attributions of Responsibility for Helping and Doing Harm: Evidence for Confusion of Responsibility,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 50(1), Jan 1986, 100-105.)

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