Worker with post it note on forehead

I want to tell you a story. A few months ago I was having a coffee with a friend and a business associate. We were sitting at a small café which was opposite a small food court arcade in James Place, Adelaide. We hadn’t been sitting there long when suddenly a fight broke out between two men inside the food court about 25 metres away from me. A young girl who appeared to be with the men tried to pull one of the men fighting away, but he turned around and started to viciously assault her, causing her to scream out in pain.

This was in the middle of the day in a busy food court with easily 50 people around who could see and hear this happening and yet, not a single person did anything and in fact, many people turned away. I was so shocked and horrified that I sprung from my seat and ran to the girl to try and help her and shouting for someone to help and for the man to stop assaulting her. The man backed off when I approached and it was only then that a security guard came running, with both men running off.

I felt as though I’d been sucker punched hard – what got me was that no one remotely close to the girl came to hers’ or my assistance, except for the security guard. Why did this happen? Why did no one help when they were all witness to a young girl being brutally assaulted in broad daylight? Does it not seem in defiance of all reasonable and decent standards of human behaviour that so many people do nothing in a face of such a wrong?

The answer is, what I had witnessed was an example of the bystander effect, which refers to the phenomenon where the greater number of people present, the less likely people will be to help a person in distress.

Why does this happen? There can be a number of reasons:

  • People don’t want to get involved and don’t want to rock the boat – i.e. the ‘it’s not my job’, ‘not my business’, ‘not my problem’ attitude
  • People feel a sense of diffused responsibility, in thinking that someone else will take action
  • People underestimate the seriousness of the situation because no one else is stepping in to help, raise alarm or raise awareness of the situation. They may assume the victim is OK or just crying out for attention
  • People are scared or are in fear of their own safety if they become involved.

 

Now, one could say these are all legitimate reasons and I would argue that the last point is the only real, legitimate reason – however even then, there are still actions and measures that can be taken, instead of doing nothing at all, such as calling others to help you. The problem lies in the belief, the culture, that it is ok to do nothing when someone is not doing the right thing.

How do we overcome it the bystander effect? Research has shown that the less number of ‘bystanders’, the more likely that observers take action, and that action is likely to occur more quickly. Attitudes also need to change – challenging the status quo, challenging the way things are done and asking if there are better ways to do things. If it is safe for you to do so, then do it.

Are you afraid of rocking the boat, of rippling the water, of challenging the status quo? Is this stopping you from breaking out of the bystander mould? Well, one useful way of tackling your fear is asking yourself: ‘what is the absolute worst case scenario here if I take this action?’ Then ask yourself, ‘what is the actual probability of that worst case scenario happening?’ 9 times out of 10 the chances of the worst case scenario occurring is virtually nil! If you are still afraid, then ask others for help – studies show that once one person does something, it is more likely that others will follow.

Are you a bystander? Perhaps you have witnessed it somewhere, sometime before either in your personal life, or at work. Perhaps you have participated it in yourself – we all have, to an extent. What is important is that we recognise it and take steps to do what is right, and in the process overcome our own fears. If you know what to do, and it is safe for you to do so, then go ahead and do it!

Breaking the bystander effect is not going to happen overnight, but if we all put in a 1% effort every day, we can break the chain and impact of the bystander effect and see staggering results. Then, and only then, with continuous effect we will embed lasting change.