The Dangers of the Bystander Effect

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Of the concepts learned in the social psychology chapter of this book, one of the most potentially dangerous phenomena is the "bystander effect", in which a situation occurs where immediate intervention or attention needs to occur, but due various reasons, witnesses do not provide or send for assistance. The book provides two shocking anecdotes, one of a young woman being stabbed multiple times at night over a 35-minute time span with several people watching the event unfold in their apartments, but the woman succumbed to the blood loss and the perpetrator fled well before anyone called the police. The other chilling story occurred in 2009 when as many as 20 bystanders simply stared while a teenage girl was gang-raped for over two hours outside a school dance, where the police weren't summoned at all.

NBC discussed a study that shocked many of those involved in the social psychology experiment. A man seized a young girl at a busy intersection pretending to be her father, and the girl would scream for help and exclaim that the man was not her parent. The clip displayed that people would simply walk by despite the ongoing distress of the girl. It was only after twenty minutes that two young men who passed by decided to turn around and confront the kidnapper.

Why do such tragic events occur, despite overwhelming evidence that something is seriously wrong? One reason could be pluralistic ignorance, where a witness assumes no one perceives the situation as they do. They see others walk by the attempted kidnapping, and think the others know the situation does not need to be confronted, so those who are hesitant to intervene are more reluctant to avoid looking foolish. This phenomenon is perhaps even more valid considering how ambiguous the NBC experiment was; the child could simply be disobedient to her father and is desperately trying to get out of his grasp.

Another reason for the bystander effect to occur is what is coined the diffusion of responsibility: the presence of other people makes each person feel less responsible for the outcome. So witnesses to this kidnapping may rationalize that even if that was a genuine kidnapping, their lack of intervention would seem trivial compared to the other multitudes of people who simply pass by as well.

When I was working at Cub Foods, several people (including myself) witnessed a man who was probably intoxicated drive his car into the cart station and other cars in the parking lot, then drive away as fast as he could. Fortunately, the bystander effect did not occur as several people called the police immediately after the man fled, and one jumped into his car to chase after the man.


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Even though I knew about the bystander effect, I was still shocked when so many people simply walked by a child clearly in distress. I think more than anything it was the fact that they simply didn't want to go through the hassle of getting involved and sacrificing time and energy. I can sit here and say how sad it is that society has come to this, but I wonder what I would have done in that position.

I think much of this has to do simply with people not wanting to get involved with an avoidable situation. In the case of Kitty, I am sure most onlookers were too afraid to physically put themselves in the situation with a dangerous, knife-bearing man. I cannot imagine, however, why no one called the police, as this could be anonymous. Being from the midwest, I am used to people holding the door and doing other courteous acts. To not hold a door for someone would be considered rude. I have found, however, that in larger cities, like New York, it is not expected of you to hold a door for another stranger. I think that in places with a dense population, people tend to keep more to themselves and focus on their needs, etc while in public. Perhaps this reflects aspects of the bystander effect. The more people present, the less likely it is that one will react to the situation. Perhaps, however, these things have nothing in common.. It is just something that crossed my mind when reading about these cases.

I found this video to be absolutely horrifying. I personally don’t want to believe that in a large crowd the bystander effect will occur, but seeing the video I realize that it actually does. It makes me quite angry that people will just pass by a girl that is being kidnapped and just ignore it. I was so proud of the three males that stepped up to help the girl, watching it gave me chills! Over all, the bystander effect can be deadly and people need to work extremely hard to get over it, otherwise someone will actually get hurt.

I always think that some of these videos do not necessarily portray exactly what is going on. However, that is not to say that the bystander effect does not exist. I personally strive to eliminate myself from this effect by placing myself in another persons shoes who might be effected by what I am witnessing. With that said, I think that it is important to step up and take charge, rather than be just another face in the crowd who doesn't do anything. What do you have to lose?

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This page contains a single entry by holt0643 published on April 22, 2012 6:55 PM.

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