Tag Archives: Bystander Effect

Barroom Bystanders

We hope it won't come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via flickr.com.

We hope it won’t come to that. Photo by DigitalGirl via flickr.com.

When things start to get crazy, the “bystander effect” can kick in. As seen in many public incidents (notably when bystanders took photos of a man about to be killed on NYC train tracks), the bystander effect is generally considered a powerful force in determining whether someone intervenes in a dramatic indecent. Basically, people are less likely to intervene if others are around—they assume someone else will deal with the problem. That said, a recent study by graduate student Michael Parks of Penn State shows that the bystander effect may not be as strong as was once thought.  In an interview for MedicalXpress, Parks explains what he saw in observing bar fights:

These bystanders used nonaggressive interventions to break up about 65 percent of the fights between two aggressive males. Most bystander interventions were classified as nonviolent interventions, which included verbally stopping the fight, or separating the fighters.

Parks worked with Wayne Osgood and Richard Felson, both professors of Penn State; Samantha Wells of the University of Ontario; and Kathryn Graham of the University of Toronto. The team’s study found that bystanders were most likely to intervene when they felt the violence was getting “too severe.” Bystanders were most likely to step in when it was male-to-male aggression, since most assume the violence escalates most quickly. Surprisingly, bystanders generally avoided breaking up male-to-female aggression (though, anecdotally, police officers do say intervening in partner violence is risky, since both partners may turn their aggression on the interloper).

“It seems a little upsetting that people didn’t intervene in incidents that involved a man harassing a woman, but the results showed that this was indeed the case,” said Parks. “Our data showed that this type of violence had the lowest level of severity, so one explanation for the lack of intervention in these incidents is that third parties perceived that the events won’t escalate into higher levels of violence, something that does not have the potential to be dangerous or an emergency.”

Bystander Journalism?

The controversial New York Post cover, cropped so as not to show the victim, nor the word DOOMED (all caps in the original). Image via nypost.com.

On a busy bridge in Detroit during a traffic jam, Deletha Word was pulled from her car by Martell Welch, whose car she had sideswiped. In view of more than forty people, former football-player Welch savagely beat Word, tearing off her clothes. Welch jumped off the bridge to escape her attacker and subsequently drowned. When I heard this story on the evening news back in 1996, I was horrified that not one of the many onlookers attempted to stop Word’s attack or to pull her from the river (she initially survived the fall, but couldn’t swim). I will never forget my first introduction to the “Bystander Effect,” the social phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to intervene to help someone in distress if there are other people nearby.

The Bystander Effect was highlighted again recently as a result of the notoriously-tactless New York Post’s front-page publication of photographs of a man about to be killed by an oncoming New York City subway train. The man had been pushed onto the tracks after an altercation was struggling to get back onto the platform. Facing criticism for photographing the man’s death, rather than helping pull him from the tracks, the photographer has defended himself in the media. He’s said he could not have gotten to the victim in time to save him, but by taking photos—thus causing his camera’s flash to go off and possibly alert the driver of the train—he hoped to help. Plus, many other people were closer to the man, but did nothing to pull him up.

Arguably, social media has exacerbated the Bystander Effect. Tim Knapp, a sociologist at Missouri State University, commented in an article about the NYC incident, “Now everyone can be a journalist and some times, at the expense of being a good Samaritan.” That is, no longer are onlookers passive observers who “do not want to get involved” or risk their own personal safety; now many bystanders film or photograph the incidents in which they fail to intervene.