Why We Don't Help Those In Need: The Bystander Effect

We all want to be good people. More specifically we all want to feel that we are indeed good people. What then does that entail? "Well," you may be saying to yourself at this very second, "a good person always helps people in need, which I think I do any chance I get". This could be true, but sometimes we are more inclined to help in certain situations than others. This can be most explained in a lot of scenarios by the bystander effect.

The bystander effect is something that a lot of people may have learned about or be familiar with. As a refresher – because I know I need one just about every day – the bystander effect is when we don't give help or offer aid to someone because we believe someone else is likely going to. The obvious problem then arises: if everyone thinks this way and displaces their responsibility onto another person, no one will ever help anyone. Obviously people help others, so this problem isn't as ubiquitous as theoretically it could be, but there is a good amount of research on why people help others and what prevents people from offering their assistance.

A meta-analytic review by Fischer, et al. published by the Psychological Bulletin in 2011, finds that the presence of other bystanders will decrease the likelihood of someone providing aid to another. Fischer and colleagues denote that while the bystander effect is extremely common and many tragedies persisted because of it, bystanders can also have the opposite effect, and embolden people to act because they're under the spotlight of everyone watching. The motivations behind these actions may often be selfishly motivated because they could very well want to be seen as a hero and have everyone praise them, increasing their ego and sense of self-worth. But in the end, if someone is getting the help they need from it is that selfishness justified? 

Fischer, et al. describes the five steps in which the bystander effect could be counteracted by someone intervening in a situation to help someone else. (1) The person needs to notice that there's a "critical situation" (a situation that would require help), (2) the person needs to perceive that the situation is an emergency, (3) the person needs to develop a personal sense of responsibility to help, (4) the person needs to believe they have the ability to help, (5) the person needs to make the decision to help. 

So for example, let’s say you see someone on the street that’s getting beaten up and you’re walking past. In order for you to help the person getting beaten, you need to notice this person getting beaten, perceive that this person needs your help, and feel like you need to help (because let's say for the sake of example you used to get beat up and you know what it's like to not have people help you when you need it). You also need to feel like you can take the person beating up the victim while posing little danger to yourself. If you think you can take them but the situation is too dangerous to you, it’s likely you won’t be willing to help. Finally you have to make the decision to help; this is probably the most crucial step because all of the previous four facets could be met, but if you don't decide to help then nothing positive is going to happen. So if you walk past the person getting beaten and go through all of these steps, you'll be much more likely to intervene and stop the person beating that victim. 

Fischer, et al.’s meta-analysis also sites Darley and Latane's article Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which sites three ways that bystanders will elect to not help someone in need. The first reason is the article's namesake, diffusion of responsibility, which is exactly what it sounds like: diffusing and displacing responsibility from oneself to another. This could be an individual, or group of people, but regardless the idea is that someone else will take care of it. The second reason is evaluation apprehension, which is how much the bystander feels they are going to be judged by the rest of the onlookers, especially if they make mistakes in helping the victim. If I try and help someone, but I screw up and make the situation worse, people aren’t going to see me as a hero, but as a screw up in a time of need. The third reason is pluralistic ignorance, which is basically when we feel ignorant about something because we rely on the outward reactions of others around us to figure out an ambiguous situation. Functionally if we can't figure out a situation, and when we look around to other people and perceive that they can't figure out the situation, we're going to not be able to interpret the situation as an emergency or one we can help out in.

So in that same example of walking by someone getting beaten up, if there are other people around, you may feel like somebody else will help this victim in need, prompting you to not intervene. You may also feel like if you do step in and help and end up getting yourself beaten up in the process, other people may judge you (in addition to now adding yourself to the victim list in this situation). You very well could not interpret the situation as an emergency because nobody else is reacting in such a way that would denote an emergency situation. We are so incredibly susceptible to doing what other people are doing. If we see other people walking by and not saying or doing anything, we will almost always not say or do anything in turn. All of these working in concert create the perfect storm for the bystander effect, causing yourself and consequently nobody else to act and help this person getting beaten. 

The bystander effect is very powerful and can translate to a lot of situations that we experience every day. We are less likely to give money to homeless people, or intervene in a shouting match, or even pick up something someone dropped while walking down the sidewalk, all because of the bystander effect. This phenomenon also exists in our ever-connected online world. When everyone is always on their phones and social media, we are always in the public eye, which means that we are continually surrounded by the watchful eyes of others. In the age of the internet, everyone is constantly a bystander among billions of spectators. We are subject to scrutiny and praise from everyone all the time whenever we post -or sometimes don't post something. Silence about something can certainly be an indication of apathy or allegiance (or just inactivity on social media, but who does that nowadays?). 

With the all tragedies going on due to the recent hurricanes in the country, there are thousands of people who need help and we are all bystanders of these events. There has been an overwhelming response and people have been coming out of the woodwork to offer whatever kind of aid they can, be it financial, or actually going to the sites of the hurricanes to help evacuate people and do damage control. The people that do help will perceive these situations as emergencies, feel like they have a personal responsibility to act, and believe they have the ability to act in a positive way. Those who haven't helped largely believe they can't. They also could be apprehensive about failing to help adequately if they tried, like donating to the wrong organization or one of the many fake ones taking advantage of people in need. There is also the sense that plenty of other people are going to and have helped, making my contribution inconsequential. Pluralistic ignorance could be at play here, if people see the storms and think that because there are so many, it's not as big of a deal then it really is, but I doubt that's the case with all the live footage we're inundated with daily. 

The biggest contributor to not helping during a disaster in a connected world I’d think would be diffusion of responsibility. This idea that somebody else will help those in need can largely incentivize us to not send money or go out to help ourselves. When we’re faced with the decision to help as a bystander, we are much more likely to do so when we feel like we can, should, and want to. Otherwise we’ll displace responsibility onto other actors or justify in our minds somehow that we shouldn’t intervene in such an emergency. So if we truly want to be altruistic – or just act in selfishness so everyone sees us as a hero – trying to combat the bystander effect to help those in need is something we need to do. There are definitely situations in which you shouldn’t help as a bystander, especially if it poses imminent threat to your own safety. However being aware about the bystander effect can help us make the conscious decision to reject it in situations where we should do something and intervene to provide aid to those who need it.