From Bystanding to Standing up

Editor’s note: Roxanne Trust, marketing strategist at LiveSafe Inc., co-authored this post with Jeff.

Nowhere is it more important than in a college community for people to become educated on the importance of collaboration in creating a safe environment. More close-knit than towns and cities, colleges and universities benefit from the combination of an academic atmosphere with the functionality of a neighborhood. That makes them an ideal place to shift our thinking as it relates to bystander psychology. A lack of awareness is often the underlying cause of the phenomenon known as “the bystander effect.” Beginning with colleges, we can lessen its harmful toll through education, and through encouragement of a new approach: to replace bystanders with “upstanders.”

The bystander effect is a term that describes the behavior of people who are less likely to take action when witnessing a crime if they are among a crowd, as opposed to if they were alone. The most infamous case of the bystander effect was that of Kitty Genovese—a young woman murdered in 1964 in New York City. Her cries for help went unanswered by dozens of people who overhead the attack. A more recent tragic example  was that of a young woman who was gang-raped in Richmond, Calif., in 2009, as 20 onlookers stood by for hours.


Strong social forces are at work against a person speaking out in a crowd.

Upon hearing stories like these, public reaction is often one of disgust and personality-based judgment calls. The knee-jerk presumption is that those bystanders were simply indifferent and immoral. Without condoning their behavior, it should be understood that strong social forces are at work against a person speaking out.

We can, however, replace these negative social forces with ones that promote positive action. The first step is to understand the forces that render us inert in an emergency.

Pluralistic Ignorance

Contributing to the bystander effect is “pluralistic ignorance,” which interferes with our ability to recognize that we are witnessing an emergency situation. We often look to others for cues to the acceptable social response, and if we see that others are not responding, it makes us less likely to take action. Without group consent we may interpret the situation as ambiguous, even if our initial instinct was to the contrary. We tend to default on the side of saving ourselves from public embarrassment of possibly misinterpreting the danger. This causes us to rationalize a situation and transform its meaning into something harmless.

In educating students, it is possible to overcome pluralistic ignorance by reminding them to listen to and trust their instincts and to take all situations seriously. It’s essential that students understand that they should speak up no matter how trivial the situation may seem. When individuals feel that their voice is appreciated, trusted and acted upon, they are more likely to speak up or come to the aid of a fellow student. If a student sees others humiliated as part of an initiation, they need to be taught that it’s not right to simply accept it as “the way things are,” but instead speak out.

Diffusion of Responsibility

Assuming that an individual can work past pluralistic ignorance, the next factor in overcoming the bystander effect is diffusion of responsibility. Bystanders feel less pressure to take action because the presence of other people leads them to conclude that someone else will or should act. With the burden to help diffused, a person’s impulse to react is lessened. We instinctively deny responsibility so we must work to counteract this reaction. In advocating social responsibility, schools can teach students to feel full responsibility in an emergency situation.

By helping students understand how bystander psychology works, schools can change their social mechanics and create upstanders instead. Not only will students learn civic and personal responsibility, but they may help prevent a crime or even save a life.

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