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  • Tamar Balkin

Don't Be A Bystander, .... You Can Always Help.

“Diffusion of responsibility” is often invoked to explain the bystander  phenomenon.  i.e. the idea that  someone else will call for help or has already.  Latane and Nida (1981)

Whilst we can't all effectively chase dangerous knife wheedling men down a street and restrain them with chairs and milk creates, as some brave bystanders did in Sydney last week.  There is always something no matter how small that we can do to help others, yet is seems people don't always help.  (Please find links to a few videos of the event before the reference section. )

The bystander effect is a phrase first coined by researchers Darley and Latané, in 1964. They wanted to try to explain how  28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment building in Queens, New York. Though she screamed for 30 minutes and several people heard her cries for help, no one came to her rescue or called the police.  Interesting a documentary was made in by her brother in 2016 which demonstrated  that there weren't quite so many witnesses and perhaps the headline in the papers was a bit dramatic.  Never the less the event prompted research into when and why people will or wont help others in distress. 

A quick review of the literature indicates that the following types of factors indicate whether or not we will help. 

  • People are more willing to offer help in a crisis if they are the lone observers than if others are present.

  • Presence of friends promotes prosocial behaviour more than does the presence of strangers

  • Dangerous emergencies are recognised faster and more clearly as real emergencies, thereby inducing higher levels of arousal and hence people will be more likely to help.If the bystanders perceive there will be serious physical harm they are more likely to intervene. 

  • The more people observing the situation the less likely anyone will help. 

What about less "dramatic" situations?? 

Latane and Darley's original hypothesis was that bystanders go through the following steps to decide if they will intervene:

  • The bystander must notice the event,

  • Interpret it as an emergency, there is a tendency to look to others to see if they consider the event an "emergency" that warrants intervention. 

  • Feel personally responsible for dealing with it,

  • and possess the necessary skills and resources to act.

This conceptualisation often serves and a foundation for corporate initiatives aimed at improving the culture, manners and civilly within the workplaces. 

What is very encouraging is that my 11 year old son was very  interested in my research for this blog as he had been discussing at school the importance of standing up for those who aren't being treated appropriately. 

A final few thoughts...

Irrespective of how strong or brave we are, in an emergency we can all pick up our mobile phones and call the police to come and help.

If you need to still be convinced...

  • I learnt a few years ago at a school safety briefing that the more emergency calls the police receive about an incident the higher it goes on their priority list and hence the quicker they will send help to the area. 

  • Regular readers would know that the positive psychology literature is full of research as to how helping others is good for your mood, and career. 


Doré, B. P., Morris, R. R., Burr, D. A., Picard, R. W., & Ochsner, K. N. (2017). Helping others regulate emotion predicts increased regulation of one’s own emotions and decreased symptoms of depression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(5), 729-739.

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.

Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I,  Greitemeyer, T; Vogrincic, C; Kastenmüller, A; et al. (2011) The Bystander-Effect: A Meta-Analytic Review on Bystander Intervention in Dangerous and Non-Dangerous Emergencies. Psychological Bulletin; Washington Vol. 137, Iss. 4,  (Jul): 517. 

Grant A. ( 2013 ) Give and take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

Latané, B., & Nida, S. (1981). Ten years of research on group size and helping. Psychological Bulletin, 89(2), 308-324

Yalin, L., & Zhao, M. (2019) Effects of the presence of others on prosocial behavior: Perceived face as mediator. Asian Journal of Social Psychology; Oxford Vol. 22, Iss. 2,  193-202.DOI:10.1111/ajsp.12358

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