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Commentary: The Bystander Effect

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by Linda Chalmer Zemel
(original source)

In their book, Safe School Ambassadors: Harnessing Student Power To Stop Bullying And Violence, Rick Phillips, John Linney, and Chris Pack discuss the power of change agents.

They note the power of social norms, as discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. These can change under some circumstances, partly because of the roles that various participants take on or already are playing in their own communities. These communities can include schools, in the case of bullying. In the case of “The Bystander Effect,” they can include the streets of whatever city you live in.

What can change social norms? First of all, the circumstances alter the importance of the message. Gladwell notes, and Phillips, Linney, and Pack point out, that if Paul Revere’s ride had taken place in the daytime instead of at night when he had to wake up the townspeople to deliver the message, that message might not have had the same impact. That in turn made the townspeople react in the immediate way that has been memorialized ever since.

The authors also note Gladwell’s theory that some ideas are “stickier” not because there is a new message, but because they are demonstrated in a way that is just the right thing at the right time. “The medium is the message” is still true.

Their third point has to do with who is delivering the message. If it is about school violence, then Gladwell’s concept of highly social people presenting it who are already persuasive and highly connected—that is to say, cool—can make a difference in creating a change there, too.

But there is also another, related problem both in schools and the larger social condition. The bystander effect hit the national airwaves this past weekend when a woman was assaulted and stabbed in Jamaica, NY. A man passing by went to help and was stabbed himself, and the assailant got away. Enough of it was caught on video to confirm the facts.

After the man who went to help collapsed while pursuing the assailant, people continued to walk by him and help did not arrive until well over an hour later. The woman and the assailant cannot be found. The man who tried to help is dead.

Newscasts on Good Morning America this past Sunday morning and again this morning showed the video more than once. A psychologist, Dr. Michael Bradley, discussed “The Bystander Effect” in conjunction with it.

Here’s what happens in “The Bystander Effect”: The more people there are present to watch a circumstance like this one, the less likely any one person will take responsibility for taking action to help. If there is only one person or only a few, someone is more likely to act.

This has been demonstrated in study after study inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder case, also in New York City, in 1964. In that case, no one who heard or saw the situation called for help, and help didn’t arrive until an hour later.

In the current situation, those who walked on by– for whatever reason– also didn’t call for help. By the time there was blood on the sidewalk and a person was lying in the street, no one was in the process of being stabbed and the assailant had fled.

With all the current talk about airline pilot regulations that go unheeded, there is one airline cabin demo that might fit the bill here. When the flight attendant gives the pre-flight demonstration of the exit door operation, the seatbelt buckle, and the oxygen masks, there is a statement that goes something like this: “Put on your own mask before assisting others.”

In the spirit of the oxygen mask demo, why couldn’t bystanders just make sure they are safe first, but then call for help, even if it’s from a block away or inside the next door– the metaphorical oxygen mask on and air coming through for both of them.