Is the Bystander Effect Real?

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You’re walking down the street. Or strolling along a river bank. Who knows, maybe you’re climbing the slide at your kid’s favorite playground. Suddenly, disaster strikes. You’re being mugged or tripped and fell into a river. A car is about to run you over and you are panicking and you can’t breath and no one is helping and, oh crap, is this how you are going to die? According to the bystander effect, no one is coming to help you and you are definitely going to die. That is if the bystander effect is real.

Before we look at new research which claims to debunk the bystander effect, we need to understand what it is. According to psychologists, people won’t intervene in a bad situation when there are other people around. Since humans look for help from one another, the sense of individual responsibility diffuses when standing among others. So if you are in a crowded area and see someone who needs help, research from as far back as the 1960s says you won’t step in because you think other people will. This is known as the bystander effect.

That research might not have been accurate.

In repeated studies over the last several decades, researchers found that people intervened in anywhere from 11% to 74% of incidents. Not only do past studies on the bystander effect produce widely varying results, the studies themselves were often performed in lab-like conditions. Researchers put test subjects acting as bystanders into situations that were not reflective of real life. These methods aren’t great for getting accurate results.

Surveillance cameras may disprove bystander effect.

The journal American Psychologist recently published a study that looked at over 200 incidents captured by surveillance cameras, which now record much of what we do in public. The footage was taken from the capital cities of three different countries — Capetown, South Africa; London, England; and Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

While watching the footage, the researchers separated the nature of conflicts into different categories. The number of people involved and how many bystanders were around were also categorized. Intervening actions were defined, and included things like:

  • Calming touches
  • Blocking contact between conflicting parties
  • Pacifying gestures
  • Consoling victims
  • Physical moving away an aggressor

And what did that study find? That bystanders are actually pretty awesome. At least one person intervened in 90% of the recorded incidents. The average number of interveners was 3.8. Wondering if the different levels of violence and crime in the varying cities led to different results in each place? The researchers concluded that there wasn’t any significant difference in bystander intervention between any of the three.

The study also did not find any evidence that larger crowds of bystanders lead to less interventions. In fact, bystanders were more likely to help when there were more people around.

It’s important to remember that this is just one study that only looked at three cities. While the results seem to promote positive human nature, there are also decades of past studies indicating the opposite. So can we answer the question, “Is the bystander effect real?” Maybe not just yet, but I think this study is a good example of how more thorough methods can produce different — and better — results.

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