Why do some people help others in need while other people appear to ignore the suffering of another person? What factors make it likely that bystanders will intervene when a stranger is in obvious need of help, for example, while being attacked in a public place? What is the impact of other people on the willingness of someone to help a stranger in distress? These, and related, questions have been asked and answered by social psychologists over the past 50 years. In fact, the bystander effect, also known as bystander apathy, is one of the most frequently researched topics within the field of social psychology. Most people experience a state of emotional arousal upon witnessing the suffering of another person. However, whether this arousal promotes a “flight” or “fight” reaction varies among people, with some people preferring to leave the scene of a violent or otherwise disturbing event (flight) and others, who are willing to engage with the attacker in an attempt to help the victim (fight). Considerable research has also revealed the tendency of many people to assume someone else will offer assistance when there are multiple observers of a violent act, such that they will not offer assistance. There are countless examples presented by the media of people who witness a mugging or similar act of violence but do nothing to stop it. In fact, there are numerous famous instances in which bystanders failed to do the most simple thing possible to help someone in need, that is, call the police. It seems that, if people observe others doing nothing, they, in turn, are likely to do nothing because they wrongly conclude that they are misperceiving the threat level of the situation. On the other hand, if at least one person rises to the occasion to render assistance to the victim, other people are likely to help. Often, people make immediate calculations about the costs and benefits of helping versus not helping someone before deciding what to do in an emergency. Overall, the person’s sense of responsibility toward other people, in general, is one of the best predictors of providing help. Ask yourself the following questions to determine whether you are likely to help someone in obvious distress: (1) what are the consequences to the other person if I help?; (2) what are the consequences to the other person if I do not help?; (3) what are the personal consequences if I help?; and (4) what are the personal consequences if I do not help? Are you a helper?
I’d like to think I’m a helper in a situation that requires it. I certainly take the time and make the effort to call police or EMS when I witness an accident or dangerous situation. Melissa and I have also stopped to help when we have witnessed traffic accidents. In the instance I’m thinking of, a vehicle was clipped by a bus and sent careening off the road on Alligator Alley (yes, dealing with alligators could be a hazard in helping). In that situation, one or two other vehicles stopped and without making an effort to coordinate, we did. Because I observed 2 or 3 people running to the car involved, I got on the phone with the Florida Highway Patrol, reporting as many details as possible, so that as much help as possible could be summoned on a desolate stretch of road. But, bystander intervention takes other forms, some riskier than others. Some put the bystander at risk. I’m thinking of two recent high profile situations. In the example of the George Floyd bystanders, many wanted to intervene but were threatened by the police in ways that no one would believe were it not for the video. In that case, many people report feeling helpless, but in making the recordings and in being willing to testify, they stepped up as intervening bystanders whose efforts have made a difference. There was nothing else for them to do – but thankfully, they did what they did. Think what would have happened had the videos not been recorded! In another recent incident, an Asian woman was attacked on the streets of New York. Video again reveals the story and that those who could have intervened did little in response. It is impossible to say “I would have done X if I were there.” And, I often ponder what I would do without a weapon or posse to help me intervene in such a violent situation. But, I know many who ponder such things as well, and I believe that thinking about situations is a one way to learn how to be an intervener. I just hope to find some of them to team up with should I ever encounter such a situation.
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