The Bystander Effect: Upstander Verses Bystander

Running into the fire instead of away from it

The bystander effect is when several people are present at the time of an emergency, but no one steps in to help the person in need. It is believed that the more people who are present during an emergency, the less likely people are to be proactive and help the victim.

The bystander effect was named by social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane. They began researching the different reactions that people have while witnessing a crime. The first known case of bystanders syndrome inspired them to begin their research on why people in a group can be passive in an emergency.

In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was attacked in Queens, New York. She was raped and murdered while dozens of her neighbors listened and watched the attack take place. The reaction from the media was indignant. People couldn’t understand how this could happen and why so many people would “turn a blind eye” to the vicious attack on Kitty. Darley and Latane were motivated to research this case and come up with reasons why the neighbors didn’t help Kitty. During their research, they coined the term “The Bystander Effect”.¹

In reality, many of us have done this but to a lesser extent. Have you ever driven by a bad car accident and didn’t stop? Many of us have and it is nothing to be ashamed of. There are some occupations that require you to stop and help during an emergency. My husband was a ten-year member of the Canadian Forces Infantry Division and by law, he has to stop and assist if there is an incident threatening the well-being of another person. This rule usually applies to all emergency personnel.

There is a protection law called “The Good Samaritan Act” that legally protects anyone who gives first-aid from any legal repercussions if there are medical errors made. This law protects those who voluntarily help in an emergency without the expectation of a reward. The law will protect the good samaritan as long as the medical mistake is a reasonable medical error. If the case was to go to trial, the jury or judge would determine if the transgression was a plausible mistake to make in that situation and the law will protect them in that case. This law exists in all fifty states in the United States and in Canada’s ten provinces.

Regardless of the rules concerning “The Good Samaritan Act”, many of us will shy away from helping in an emergency situation.

People have different reasons for not assisting, such as:

  • Many people “freeze up” in an emergency and become so anxious that they cannot assist the person in need.
  • Some people feel that the more people present, the less responsibility there is on them to help.
  • Sometimes, we think another person has everything under control. For example, people driving by a car accident and assuming someone has called 9–1–1 already. This is called Pluralistic ignorance. The scenarios in which this occurs are all very different and it is fairly common²

When a person doesn’t help during an emergency situation, it doesn’t mean they are bad people or lack empathy. They just don’t feel the personal onus to put themselves out there. Especially if there are other people capable of helping the victim present.

There are two key personalities according to the bystander effect. There is the bystander, who is able to help and does not. Then there is the upstander, who is ready and willing to help anyone in peril.

So how do we turn ourselves from bystanders to upstanders?

The same researchers from the Kitty Genovese study, Darley and Latane, established a five-step sequence that bystanders must complete before anything happens:

  • Notice the emergency — The unusual traffic pattern around the car wreck, smoke billowing from the duct, the sound of gunfire differentiated from construction noise.
  • Define the emergency — Is this something I need to do something about?
  • Take responsibility — this isn’t to say that the bystander ‘owns’ the situation, just that they are taking responsibility to act…Be the Leader!
  • Make a plan — figure out a solution to the best of their ability
  • Act — Just Do It!¹

Now, for those of us that “freeze up” during emergencies. I used to do the same until I worked as a nursing assistant for a few years. I experienced many medical emergencies during that time and learned very quickly that hesitation was not my friend. I had to help and I am forever thankful for that experience because now I have no problem jumping in to help people who need it.

Here are a few tips that helped me become more assertive in an emergency:

  • Emotionally separate yourself. Don’t think about anything, just assess the scene and figure out what your role will be.
  • Don’t be afraid to pause before acting. Make a quick plan of what to do next while communicating with the team that is helping you.
  • If there is nothing for you to do, comfort the person. Keep an eye out for threats to your safety.
  • Always be thinking with the intent of helping and nothing else. Keep your mind on what you’re doing and not what could happen to the injured person.
  • If the anxiety “creeps in”, remember you’re only helping until the first responders arrive and then your job is finished.

Fortunately, I have some good news! There is a recent study that has been done by Richard Philpot at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom that is finding that The bystander effect may happen less than what we thought. Philpot and his team observed surveillance footage of violent attacks in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the Netherlands. They noted that in 90 percent of cases at least one person stopped to help the victim.³ This research is in the beginning stages but Philpot believes that people are more inclined to help others than what was originally thought.

At any place and at any time, you can witness an emergency. In a perfect world, we would all be first-aid certified and be confident in assisting each other. However, that can be easier said than done. The main thing I took away from my experiences in the medical field and in my research this week was to act thoughtfully and with intention when there is an emergency. Remember, help is on the way and you could be saving someone’s life.

[1]Seth Goldstein (December 21,2017) Defeating the Bystander Effect — How to Act as a Good Samaritan During Emergencies

[2]Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo Ph.D.(Feburary 27,2015)
The Bystander Effect

[3] Grace Brown(June 26, 2019) Bystander effect: Famous psychology result could be completely wrong

Wife, mother, and researcher of a myriad of subjects. I love to write about anything and everything! Writer for The Startup, Better Marketing, & The Ascent👊

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