The bystander effect
One of the most interesting phenomenons in social psychology is the bystander effect, which states that the likelihood that an individual will intervene in an emergency goes down as the number of bystanders increases. In other words, there is a lower probability that a specific person will intervene and help a victim in an emergency when there are many people around, as compared to when he or she is alone facing the victim.
This is because we often base our judgment and interpretation about an event or a person on the reactions of other people. Thus, we rely heavily on others as a source of information because of informational influence, as we are motivated by a desire to be correct and to obtain valid information, especially when the situation is ambiguous and we are unsure about how to react. Hence, if other bystander does nothing to help to the victim, we may interpret that the victim is probably fine and that it might not be an emergency after all.
Another reason to account for the bystander effect is the diffusion of personal responsibility, when other people are present in an emergency situation. Since there is more than one bystander, their sense of personal responsibility creases as they rationalized that it’s not their responsibility to attend to the victim and that their help is not needed as other people might provide assistance to the victim as well.
The following report is taken from The New Paper on 22nd March this year.
Brief description of the case:
A local secondary school girl was assaulted by her schoolmates just after school and was beaten up so badly that she has to be admitted to a hospital immediately. Her attackers used to be her friends since last year; however, they apparently fell out when the she wanted to leave the group, as she decided to concentrate on her studies. What’s more surprising was that she was attacked in front of over a dozen onlookers, who are also her schoolmates, but no one did anything to prevent or stop the assault, which leave the victim with bruises all over her forehead, arms and legs. Despite her cries for help, none of the bystanders provide any assistance to her and instead, some even use their handphone cameras to film the attack. The victim’s ordeal ended when her attackers escaped upon hearing someone’s shout that the police were coming.
This is a typical example of the bystander effect in action. Since the victim and her attackers, as well as the bystanders, were schoolmates and used to be friends, the question then is why none of her schoolmates stand out and stop the assault? Aren’t friends supposed to help each other?
Analyzing the case in a social psychological perspective, I would attribute the behaviors of the onlookers as a manifestation of the bystander effect. First of all, according to the report, there are about 15 bystanders at the scene, when the victim was assaulted. As we all know, the probability that any bystander would intervene decreases as the number of bystander increases. Therefore, the likelihood that the victim would receive help in this case, is rather slim in the first place. Secondly, due to the large group of bystanders, most of them experienced responsibility diffusion, as they felt less personal responsibility for helping the victim. Thirdly, besides informational influence, the bystanders were also held back by normative influence, as they wanted to be liked by their in-group members and continue to remain in the group so as to avoid conflict, even though they might not necessarily think that the violent behaviors are justifiable and correct. Lastly, after accepting personal responsibility to help the victim, the bystander also has to decide on an appropriate form of assistance before taking actions. Simply jumping into the scene and prevent the attack from happening might not be the best way to intervene, as he or she might get attacked as well. Although the newspaper report did not further elaborate on who shouted for the police and stopped the assault, I believe it was one of the bystander, who has finally made a wise decision.
Chan, C. (2008, March 22). Despite her cries for help, schoolmates just stand and film attack.
The New Paper, pp. 2-3.