Bystander Effect

Posted By on January 27, 2010

Have you ever heard of the term Bystander Effect?

According to Wikipedia, it is defined as follows:

The bystander effect is the somewhat controversial name given to a social psychological phenomenon in cases where individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present.

Basically it says that the more people who are around to witness a crime, the less likely people will actually help.

This morning on the radio, they played the following clip from NBC News:

If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, the premise is that they set up a fake child abduction to see who would help, all while the child’s mom watched, hidden in a van, to see who would come to the aid of her child.

I always wonder what I would do in a situation like this. Hearing this on the radio, without any accompanying images, I can tell you, when the kid first starts screaming “You’re not my dad!” there would be no way in hell that I would help. I would have assumed it was a bratty kid who was with her stepdad or mom’s new boyfriend and was pitching a fit.

But as the clip goes on, she clearly starts yelling HELP and asks people to help her because “this is not my dad.”

And it got me wondering – would I have stepped in to help?

I wrote before how I would protect kids from harm, whether they were mine or not, especially when they are in my care. But a situation like this? It makes me wonder what I would do.

Part of my hesitation is that I am a woman. And if a large man (albeit I am not petite flower by any means) was doing the attacking, I know my first thought would be “that man will kill me and the kid.”

But the sound of that girl screaming, although staged, is still playing over and over in my head. Could I be selfless enough to step in, even though I might get hurt? Or I might have misjudged the situation? Shouldn’t that be what I do? As an adult and as a human being?

Obviously, there is no question that if I know the kid/person, I’m stepping in. But why should I have the hesitation with someone else, someone I don’t know, someone not related to me? That isn’t fair. And wouldn’t I want someone to step in if the roles were reversed?

I feel lucky that I haven’t been on either side of this issue. But it definitely makes me wonder and makes me want to somehow ensure that I would react and wouldn’t just wait for someone else to help. Like they said in the video, the worst that could happen if you stepped in would be that you could be wrong and the situation wasn’t what you thought. And no one really wants to imagine what the worst that would happen if you didn’t step in.

So what do you all think, what do you think you would do?

About the author

Kristabella, who also answers to “Hey! Drunk Girl!”, is a reformed band geek with an amazing ability to drink most people under the table. You can read her inane ramblings here, where she talks about her exciting life as a spinster with two cats and a fascination for Bacon.


25 Responses to “Bystander Effect”

  1. Jenn says:

    That video is terrifying. I can barely contain myself from picking up and comforting crying babies in the grocery, so am pretty sure I’d karate chop this guy in the ba**s first and ask questions later.
    .-= Jenn´s last blog ..Fact-free Europe =-.

  2. Raven says:

    I would totally step in, I would be calling 911 on my cell phone while intervening so someone in a place of authority could hear what was going on and you can damn well bet this italian girl could cause one hell of a scene. If that man is going to take me down too, he’s going to take me down screaming.
    .-= Raven´s last blog ..a return to “normal” =-.

  3. Mahnee says:

    I’d step in…like Raven says, 911 on the cell phone but I’m stepping in even if I misjudged the situation. There was a family of five…two “adullts” and three kids on the EL platform this summer and the adults were NOT paying any attention to their kid of about 4 who was dangerously close to the edge of the EL platform. I watched this for about two minutes and went over and told the adults to hold on to thier kid before he fell and was electrocuted. They greabbed the kid & kept hold of his hand….not sure of their reaction to me cuz I don’t speak Spanish.

    YOU would so totally step in…no doubt.

  4. Mahnee says:

    PS They called this the Good Samaritan Act on Seinfeld.

  5. Kate says:

    Wow, it is really eye opening to see all of those people just walk by and not help. If you asked me 4 years ago I probably would have said that I would not risk getting hurt or making an idiot of myself if I read the situation wrong, but now I would help. Three nieces and one nephew later and I don’t care I would want someone to step in if my family were in that situation. I would rather read the situation incorrectly and yell at some child’s step father then risk that kid getting hurt. Luckily I’ve never been put in the position, but don’t most people think that they would help?

  6. Oh goodness, I don’t know. I like to imagine some instinct would kick in and I would beat the crap out of the wannabe abductor, but I guess it’s just as likely my panic would stop me from doing anything and I would beat myself up about it for the rest of my life. Hopefully I am never tested in this way.
    .-= nancypearlwannabe´s last blog ..Spirit Reading =-.

  7. Janice says:

    If I were in a dark alley (why i don’t know) and it was a big guy, a kid screaming, and me, then yeah I am not sure I wouldn’t approach but I would be calling 911 and/or getting help not ignoring it. But this is daytime on the streets of suburban NY- heck yeah, I am doing something. Even walking towards them, asking if things are ok… no way would I just walk by ignoring it. And yeah chances are pretty good if its nothing you are gonna get screamed at for being nosy or something but I can live with that. Couldn’t live with finding out later the child was kidnapped.

  8. I like to think I’d help, but the bystander effect can be pretty powerful. Social psychology is so wierd and crazy and fascinating.

  9. Also, that mom really annoys me in the video. I’d be willing to bet if she had this experiment perpetrated on her she would walk RIGHT by too.

    Those dudes who did help: awesome.

  10. Carrisa says:

    You know you hear so many kids throw tantrums and scream just because they are unruly. It would be hard to tell if the kid is screaming because it’s being a brat or because it’s in need of actual help.

    However, I think from now on I will definitely pay more attention. Better to be wrong than to have done nothing to help.
    .-= Carrisa´s last blog asked for it =-.

  11. Lori says:

    I’d hope that in that moment I’d be brave enough to step in. I think so. And I think it ends up being a kind of domino effect. If one person tries to help and there are others nearby, it seems to then become easier for others to join in the helping.

  12. Kirsten says:

    I’m with Carrisa.

    That sounds so much like a temper tantrum, that I’m not sure that I would have responded right away – and that didn’t seem like a “fear” response to me. Maybe that’s why so many people didn’t respond – scary as that thought is.

    I’ll definitely be paying more attention now, though, especially since I am tourist hell here in Juneau… who knows what could happen?

  13. paperdiva says:

    Also agreeing with Carissa.
    Take a close look at the child. Do they loook scared? Often you can tell if a kid is screaming because they are unhappy or if they are really scared.
    I’ve told my kids to scream long and loud, and to use the word “Help” as often as they can. “You’re not my dad’ isn’t specific enough
    .-= paperdiva´s last blog ..I am totally traumatized by my kids =-.

  14. Alice says:

    oh man, i saw that clip on tv when it aired, and it *is* shocking and alarming. i have stepped in / called 911 when i’ve been a bystander/rando before, but like carissa says.. in this situation i’m honestly not sure if i’d just tune it out as another whiny kid throwing a tantrum. gah.
    .-= Alice´s last blog ..i’m officially a Pole Master! (believe me, i already know all the dirty puns you can make with that title.) =-.

  15. jennster says:

    honestly, i think it’s hard because sometimes your kids are acting like assholes and screaming at you, or doing things, or saying things that aren’t true. and in some of those clips with that girl, if i was walking by- if i just heard the guy saying “don’t ever walk away from me again.. don’t do that, do you hear me.” and the kid was crying or making commotion, i would totally assume they were pissy for getting in trouble. it’s easy to say you’d step in and do something when you KNOW 100% that it is fake and staged… but in real life, i think it’s much harder to tell if that is a REAL situation, or if it’s just a kid fighting with their parent.
    .-= jennster´s last blog ..we did naughty things to our waiter =-.

  16. It can be dicey but I am almost always a “step inner” than a “bystander.” I’d rather take the chance and then look like an over reactive busy body than do nothing and have something horrible happen. I call it looking out for my own karma. Will calls it “nosey.”
    .-= Erin (Snarke)´s last blog ..It’s Ba-Ack! =-.

  17. Angella says:

    I don’t know what I’d do. I would like to think I’d step in, but having seen many a meltdown, it’s hard to know when it’s nor “normal”. Ugh.
    .-= Angella´s last blog ..Not Guilty =-.

  18. Kristie says:

    I tell you, i teared up when those two men started running to get the bad guy. If I heard and saw that little girl doing the same thing I’d probably not act in a physical way, like walk up or say anything. But I would, however, not hesitate to call 911 and get the police involved. I’d follow the man, at a distance to not attract attention to myself, so I could relate to the 911 operator what was going on.
    I’m not deilcate flower either but we all have the self preservation instinct so I think there’s a balancing act that happens in those crucial moments.
    .-= Kristie´s last blog ..The Blathering, version 2.0 =-.

  19. Okay, full disclosure: I didn’t watch the video because I. . .I just can’t. You summed it up for me so that’s what I’m going on.

    I’d be on my cell phone pretty damn fast, all the while assessing the kid to see if he/she is scared. And honestly, I’d rather be on the side of caution then left wondering “well, was that REALLY a tantrum? Or is that kid on a milk carton now?”

    I’ve never been in this situation so of course this is what I assume I’d do. But honestly, I’d rather be safe than sorry.

  20. I would truly hope I would step in and get my ass kicked in the name of a child.
    .-= Sensibly Sassy´s last blog ..Here’s Winkin’ At You Kid =-.

  21. slynnro says:

    That shit is disturbing yo. I don’t know what I would do, but I would certainly call 911 or do SOMETHING to draw attention to the situation and not just FUCKING STAND THERE OMG.
    .-= slynnro´s last blog ..The Lazy Chef. And The Lazy EVERYTHINGELSE. =-.

  22. caleal says:

    I know I would call 911. I’m kind of 911 trigger happy. Not like I call them to say hey, what’s up? But I don’t really hesitate to make a call when I feel the situation warrants it. A big part of the bystander affect is the diffusion of responsibility. You don’t call because you assume the police are already getting a call, whatever. But I rarely assume other people are ever going to do anything right. So I’m 99.9 percent positive I’d dial the phone.

    …but I don’t think I’d directly intervene in something… I’m not a very physically imposing person. Maybe it’s stupid, but I’m not. I don’t know how to fight, and I fear I’d say something and… get knocked out. Then I can’t even dial 911, so what good am I?

  23. MaNiC MoMMy says:

    Ooh ooh! Raising hand over here! I know it wasn’t a child abduction but did you read about me breaking up the fight at McDonald’s and all the cops that came and the kid who I got put in jail!?!?!? Go read it! I’m a STEPPER INNER kinda gal! (of course, the kid was a little scary but not abductor scary!!
    .-= MaNiC MoMMy´s last blog ..MoNey MoNey =-.

  24. MaNiC MoMMy says:

    .-= MaNiC MoMMy´s last blog ..MoNey MoNey =-.

  25. I would love to say that I’d help, but I worry about crazy parents that turn it around and made it look like I did something wrong. Because people are cah-ray-zee and it’d be just my luck that the mom would blame me for the bruises on the kid.
    .-= thecoconutdiaries´s last blog ..TV Whore =-.