The Bystander Effect

September 22th, 2017

Content Warning(s): Harassment, bystander intervention, violence, rape.

Please note that this post will contain sensitive material; please exercise caution if you see a topic that could be upsetting to you.

If you've ever taken a psychology class, chances are you've heard of Kitty Genovese. On March 13th, 1964, she was attacked repeatedly over the course of half an hour - robbed, raped, and stabbed, right outside her apartment building.

The day after the attack, the New York Times published a small article about the murder; on the 27th, however, they posted another one entitled, "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police," which started with this shocking line:

"For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens."

The article claims that over three dozen people knew what was going on, heard the screams, saw the attack, and did nothing to stop it. The author quotes people as saying they just "didn't want to get involved" or that they were just "tired" so they went back to bed.

Since then, this report has come into question, even by the New York Times itself. People living in the neighborhood have disputed the charges, which in and of itself isn't surprising. But it's also worth noting that the murder was carried out in two attacks in two separate areas, and a stab wound in the first attack may have made it difficult for Genovese to make the bloodcurdling screams that the Times reported were ignored.

The truth, like most things, is likely in the middle. Many people probably heard or saw what they dismissed as a "domestic dispute" or a drunken woman stumbling around, assumed it was "no big deal", and so they ignored it. Those who claim they called the police may have not understood what was going on or failed to convey the seriousness of the situation to the operator.

Wherever the truth lies, the murder did spark interest in the "bystander effect" - the paradoxical notion that as the number of witnesses to an event increases, the likelihood that any one person will come to your aid decreases.

You may have experienced this for yourself at a convention, if you've ever been harassed while other people were present and nobody stepped in. You may have felt alone and abandoned, unsure why you weren't helped. Or maybe you've been the bystander who didn't intervene, and you looked back on that situation with regret.

The science behind the bystander effect may not comfort you if you've been in either situation; however, you can use that knowledge to jostle yourself out of inactivity if you see harassment in the future, or educate others on how to do the same if they're in that situation.


Bystanders go through a multi-step process when confronted with an emergency situation, and if something goes wrong at any point during the chain, they will fail to react.

To respond to an emergency, the bystander must:

  1. Notice the situation.
  2. Realize it's an emergency.
  3. Assume responsibility.
  4. Form a plan to respond.
  5. Actually respond.

So let's look at Step 1: notice the situation. This one seems pretty obvious, right? A pair of researchers tested this in an experiment where they put the participant in a room either by themselves or with another person who was in on the experiment (called a "confederate" in psychological literature). Almost immediately after the researcher left, smoke was released into the room. If the participant was by themselves, they noticed it within 5 seconds. When the participant was with a confederate, however, it took up to four times longer to notice the smoke and report it. Why is that?

The researchers theorized that it had to do with politeness. If you're in a room by yourself, you might let your gaze wander, meaning you're more likely to notice something amiss. If you're with another person—or in a room full of people—then looking around might be considered rude or nosy. Social pressure dictates you keep your focus on yourself.

Even at a convention, where many people are there to interact with others and show off their cosplay, your focus is probably more on yourself and/or the people you're with than individuals who are passing by or in the area with you. You may walk right by a person being harassed and not even realize it. In fact, it's entirely possible if you're intently focused on something, a major event could be happening right in front of you and you could be blind to it. (This is called inattentional blindness and you can read more about it here.)

If your brain DOES register that something isn't quite right, it might dismiss what you saw. Humans are social creatures and we often take our cues on how to react from others. If you're in a room with other people, none of whom act alarmed or surprised when an event happens, you're less likely to be alarmed yourself.

Conventions have the added problem of people being in costume and sometimes playacting; a cosplayer may be portraying an antagonist and berating another artist as part of being in character for a skit or for a photoshoot. Even if the behavior would be patently inappropriate in the "real world," it might not send up a red flag at a con.

The key to increasing bystander intervention at conventions is getting people to notice when something is wrong. Pay attention if you're in a crowd or at a gathering. Is someone frowning and staring down at the floor, rather than the person talking to them? Do you hear cursing or insults being tossed in someone's direction? Is another cosplayer glancing around the room anxiously, as if silently asking for assistance?

If something just Doesn't Seem Right, take a moment and look closer. Maybe they're just friends teasing each other. Maybe they're just in character. Maybe the person has social anxiety and is just uncomfortable. But maybe it's something more.

So now we've noticed that something is going on. How can you recognize that it's an emergency?

Most of us have a built-in fear response, an evolutionary adaptation that allowed our ancestors to realize, "OH CRAP THAT'S A PREDATOR RUN AWAAAAAAAAAAY." If something sets that off in you, don't ignore it. Chances are, there's a good reason why.

Step 2 ties into Step 3: assuming responsibility. If you're not completely sure if an actual emergency is happening, there are ways to take the temperature of the situation. Go up to the person you think might be in distress. Ask them point-blank if they're okay. If you don't know if they'd feel comfortable answering that, then ask them if they know where something is. (The bathroom is usually a safe bet; you can also ask where a panel room is.) If they start to tell you where it is, say something like, "Oh, I'm horrible with directions. Do you think you could show me?" This gives them an excuse to exit the situation without it becoming confrontational.

Assuming responsibility does not HAVE to mean you personally doing something. If you're shy or have social anxiety, you might not feel comfortable doing that. But you could turn to your friend and say, "I think something's wrong. Are you able to go over there and seeing if that person's okay?"

Anyone who's been at a con knows this doesn't happen as often as it should, though. Even if people notice a situation is happening, even if they recognize it's an emergency, they may not assume responsibility and act. Why is that?

Psychologists call it "diffusion of responsibility," and it's one of the reasons why as the number of people around you increases, the likelihood any one person will act decreases.

If you're in a room with one other person and they start choking, you know it's up to you to do something. If you don't perform the Heimlich or go get someone who knows how, that person is going to die. But if you're in a room with fifty other people and someone starts to choke, the pressure is spread out. Your brain will start to make rationalizations for why you shouldn't step in.

"I don't even think I remember how to do it properly."

"Someone here is probably a doctor. It'd be better if they did it."

"I'd probably mess it up, anyway."

"Someone Else will do something."

"It's Someone Else's responsibility."

"It's Someone Else's Problem."

But every other person in the room is probably thinking the exact same thing. YOU need to be that Someone Else who acts. If everyone assumes everyone else will step in, then nobody will.

This takes us into Step 4: form a plan. This plan will probably involve either intervening in the situation or finding someone who can. YOU may not know the best way to respond. If someone needs CPR or medical assistance, you may be out of your depth. If you're not comfortable in social situations, you may need to get someone who is. You may have never had to deal with harassment and be utterly unsure how to deal with it.

Step 4 flows quickly into Step 5: respond.

If you need to find someone with the skills or ability to act, do NOT just say, "Does anyone know CPR?" or "Can somebody help?" This just leaves you in the same situation you were before, with everyone assuming someone else will step up. You need to take that diffusion of responsibility and distill it down to a single person.

The best way to do this is to directly point to someone. Say, "Hey, you, the Harley Quinn, do you know CPR?" Say, "Okay, Rebecca, can you go to that person and help?" Say, "The person in the red shirt, I think there's an emergency here and we need help." Single someone out who you think can help and put the focus on them. While the expectation is often that you flag down a member of the security team or staff, reality is that they're not always available; go with your best option. If they freeze or indicate they can't, move on to someone else.

That might seem harsh or mean. What if that individual DOESN'T know what to do? What if they're too scared to act? You've just put a lot of pressure on a single person. But in an emergency, the most important thing is that the person in trouble gets help. If the situation isn't resolved successfully (or even if it is), any bystander may feel guilty for not providing assistance. That's why if you do single out a person who can't act, it's also important afterwards to try to process with them why you did what you did. Help them understand that not being equipped to deal with a situation is NOT shameful. Knowing your limitations, as odd as it sounds, is actually a strength.

As much as that seems like a long, protracted process, these steps often take place in a matter of minutes, sometimes a matter of seconds. To shake off the bystander effect, you need to:

  1. Be aware of your surroundings and don't just turn away if something catches your attention in the wrong way.
  2. Take a moment to focus on the situation and evaluate it. Are they friends just goofing off? Is this for a skit or a shoot?
  3. If something does seem wrong, don't assume someone else will deal with it, even if other people appear aware of it. Take responsibility.
  4. Figure out how to best deal with the situation. What kind of assistance do they need? Do you need to get help? Can you handle it on your own?
  5. Respond in the best, safest manner you can.

It's worth noting that when this effect was first studied, it was called "bystander apathy." Researchers renamed it "the bystander effect" when they began to realize it wasn't that the bystanders truly didn't care; they simply didn't notice, didn't realize, didn't think they were responsible, didn't know how to deal with it, or didn't act for whatever reason.

Granted, this is cold comfort to anyone who has suffered harassment, abuse, or assault when there were others present and they did nothing.

I try to look at it with hope. It's difficult to get people to care about things they're truly indifferent to, but it's easier to educate people on how to short-circuit the bystander effect in themselves. Through information and training, we can help build safer environments at conventions and in the world beyond.


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