The Bystander Effect

Social psychologists have observed the phenomenon that people are less likely to offer assistance to someone in crisis when there are other people around. The likelihood of any one person in a group offering to help decreases as the size of the group increases, while those who come across an emergency situation alone are the most likely to help. This effect was first investigated in the late 1960s by psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané, who staged fake emergencies to examine the likelihood that bystanders would intervene. They have found that people go through a five-stage process before deciding to intervene in an emergency:


  1. They must notice that something is happening.

  2. They must identify the situation as an emergency.

  3. They must feel responsible for offering assistance.

  4. They must feel capable of providing the right form of assistance.

  5. They must choose to act by offering assistance.


These points are covered in greater detail on page 9 of this facilitator’s guide. There are also five characteristics of emergency situations that impact whether someone chooses to intervene:


  1. Emergencies are usually harmful or threatening: People are less likely to intervene if helping carries the risk of injury or embarrassment.

  2. Emergencies aren’t normal and people don’t have much experience with them: People aren’t familiar with many emergency situations because they are rare. This introduces some ambiguity as to whether or not an emergency is actually happening and whether the person is responsible for helping. People are more likely to help when someone specifically asks them for it because the request clarifies the situation.

  3. The necessary response to an emergency is usually different depending on the situation. It can be difficult for people to feel confident in assisting even if they have assisted in emergencies in the past.

  4. Emergencies are unpredictable and unexpected. People cannot prepare for intervening in emergencies because they never know when an emergency will occur.

  5. Emergencies require people to act quickly; it can be difficult for people to know how to react under pressure.