The Bystander Effect
“Hello, you are so absorbed watching TV, what’s that?” Lulu, my wise parrot, asked.
“You are a very keen observer Lulu,” I said, “I am watching National Geographic. A buffalo and a calf are encircled by Hyena and they are attacking the calf, what a horrible footage! I am unable to take off my eyes and unable to watch it too. Soon the Hyenas, who are hunting in a pack, will devour the calf.”
“Oh yes,” said Lulu, “But are you seeing what I am doing too?”
“What’s that Lulu?” Lulu always had a ‘bird’s eye view’ of everything. I have always wondered whether the birds would be using a phrase like a ‘man’s eye view.’
“Don’t you see that the rest of the herd is watching helplessly from a distance? And does that remind you of anything?”
“Isn’t this called The Bystander Effect?” Lulu asked, much to my surprise.
“I always knew you as an intelligent bird, but now I suspect that you are a well trained psychologist too.”
“Don’t laugh it off! You can take a dispassionate view, an unconcerned one because you are seeing animals in the National Geographic Film. Let me explain this ‘Bystander Effect’ to you. Substitute the animals with men in Nat Geo film and you will understand what I mean.” Lulu retorted.
“Well, hold on! You are painting an extreme picture. No civilized person worth his salt will hold himself back. Haven’t we seen how people help those involved in Highway accidents?” I could not tolerate the avian attack on human values.
Lulu laughed and tapped on my head with his beak a few times before settling on my shoulder. “You have not only no touch with reality, but you are also not reading newspapers. A young girl gets raped in USA, twenty people watch and no one reports to police! Isn’t it similar? The gang rape went on for two hours!!”
“That’s really sad, and horrible. Anything can happen in USA, they do so many crazy things there. We in India have a special status for women.”
“That is a very unfair comment. There is nothing peculiar to USA when it comes to Bystander effect. It happens everywhere in the world. What happened when a girl got raped in a running train in Mumbai? There were four bystanders, they watched but did not intervene!” Lulu said. “And what happened when a lady was raped in a running train near Nasik and somebody was thrown out? There were bystanders there and it wasn’t happening in USA! Must I remind you of what happened when Kauravas were stripping Draupadi in Mahabharat? Her husbands sat there helplessly watching the attack on her modesty!”
“Ok, Ok, I take your point. It happens everywhere!”
“Not just that, it happens almost all the time around us” Lulu said. “Do you remember that a man who had lost his mental balance was killed at Dadar Railways Station in Mumbai some years ago by a mob? Do you remember how a woman was paraded naked and people silently watched it? The Gujarati couple going for morning walk was brutally attacked by two goons riding a motorbike, they injured couple was lying on pedestrian walk and no passerby helped them.”
“Why doesn’t anybody help the victims, Lulu?” I asked.
“Because nobody is called by name and asked to help, according to one sociologist. People are galvanized into action when they are specifically asked to step in. At that juncture it is difficult not to intervene and stay aloof.” Lulu continued, “Malcolm Gladwell says in his book, The Tipping Point – “When people are in a group, responsibility for acting is diffused. They assume that someone else will make the call, or they assume that because no one else is acting, the apparent problem- isn’t really a problem”.
Lulu was unstoppable; he continued, “Aren’t you seeing like thousands others, your country being ruined by corrupt officials, goons in the garb of political leaders who foster fissiparous tendencies instead of uniting people. You are also watching and not acting, because nobody has called out your name and said, “Hey Vivek, You feel strongly about this issue, come join me, let us do something about it.”
“Difficult to digest what you are saying Lulu. I think I would rather have a drink to calm my nerves.” I said.
A subtle manifestation is also the insider-outsider and inclusion-exclusion effect in organisations as group dynamics points out.
The inscription at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC reads
“Thou shall not be a victim. Thou shall not be a perpetrator. Above all, thou shall not be a bystander”
Sadly we still haven't learnt from our past..
Thanks Counter Strike for your observations and comment.
The bystander effect is apparently the biggest nemesis of our times. From time immemorial, history is full of people who have never succumbed to it, be it in a positive or a negative fashion. But the by standers are plenty in number that they offer tacit support to the ones who take up to acts of gross injustice. If we are sensitive to this, we can see it all around us. The fact that we need to be called out to help others is a grotesque manifestation of the sickening sense of importance we give to ourselves. It is all about the need to be and feel wanted. If we bystanders decide to stand up when it matters, things would change. If we do not stand up for something, we will fall for everything.
Thoughtful observations. I have provided a link to wikipedia article on Bystander effect which says "The probability of help has in the past been thought to be inversely proportional to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. This has never been successfully proved beyond the very basic research given here."
Thanks for your comments,
Such an insightful post! Yes, we see this type of tendency everywhere.
And what is written in the wikipedia article about number of bystanders and likelihood of them helping, being in inverse proportion- seems very probable, doesn't it?
It was a shaking posting for me as I could relate to every aspect mentioned in the article…. I myself questioned this bystander effect a zillion times as to what makes a person reach out with help or walk out with out a voice.
I am still clueless as I could never narrow down unto any region which can be closely termed as an answer to the question.
I would say that issues like who is victim(male or female) the social status of the victim (If a poor man is being hit by mob/ or say he suffers an accident the bystander would still be a bystander unlike in an accident where a car is hit people will rush to fish out the victims) the mental status of bystander would also be an issue.
I would like to share two real life experiences; once in my graduation a daily wage labour hired for some cleaning work (male,old 65-70yrs) in my neighbors house got a seizure and was bleating for help in the owners house. The house owners were indoors watching the incident through the windows. They didnt come out as the family at that point of time had no male available at home (They belonged to minority community). I was watching this from the terrace of my friends home. After couple of minutes I couldn't maintain my silence and had to rush to his help.
Minor nurturing helped and he was getting back to normal. The lady then sprang out of home and accused me of getting somebody else into their house n leaving him to die there..I was speechless, she started abusing me, I tried talking to her but in vain attempts, then I shouted back saying how their indifference would have a resulted in a grave situation. She ultimately had the old man out of her house.
Another recent incident was in a local vegetable market, I was purchasing some groceries and there a vagabond was lying unconscious; I assumed he was drunk , in few minutes he passed out and died, a huge group of people circled the man they were just looking at him silently nobody panicked, nobody called 108, nobody even touched him. I was a nobody, I did nothing, I was a bystander here. Then a shopkeeper rang 108 n then came help to lift his corpse… I still ask myself why did'nt I react/help/respond
Thanks Manju and Nikhil.
The Bystander Effect was identified after the Genovese murder. Actually a video is also available on the internet, though I have chosen not to watch it.
Thanks for the disclosure about another incident Nikhil, I understand you much better now.
This is some effect sir ! I wasnt aware that such effects are in action !
Well the by stander effect seems to have existed since aeons .. exempli gratia being that of Pandavas in Mahabharata. Also the gladiatos who fought in Roman amphitheatres were used to provide entertainment to the spectators. Though not exactly a bystander effect , still it reinforces the fact that people can be immune to reacting when required. The reasons given are either diffusion of social responsibilty or evaluation apprehension from fellow bystanders. The paradox lies in the fact that when intervention is needed in such an exigence , the human mind acts so predictably thinking of who's responsibility it is to actually help? Do we dismiss this effect as merely one of the numerous paradoxes that exist or stand up ?
Everyone is a bystander in some aspect of their life, and an action-taker in another aspect of their life. How meaningfully we exist in society depends on the ratio of the mix of these two.
I also have a theory, that there is a cultural factor that affects the level/degree of bystander-ness.
I think Mumbaikars have a special action-taker attribute, in times of trouble. I just did a post on this, based on the recent Thane bridge collapse, and then read this bystander theory here.
Beautiful post Sir!
The bystander effect is very common. We watch in TV / read in newspapers, a lot of things screaming for attention, but we simply do not do anything about it!
I think the 'fear of getting hurt' and the 'fear of failing', gets imbibed so deeply in the childhood itself that it prevents people from standing up to such injustices.
Very insightful post and so true!
First time on your blog today. (That was a lie- I was a lurker earlier- Now a commenter)
This Lulu is very knowledgeable person. err bird..
Is he from Thane too? People from Thane are clever aren't they? (Now Do I need to tell where I come from? )
Jokes apart, you do bring up some good stuff to read here. I never knew there was so much to the bystnader effect. I used to think it is the general mentality of the people. 🙁
Now going on to read what Black Dahlia really is…
let me first introduce myselt to you. I am NS Iyer's Cousin. I was reading your blog "The Bystander Effect" i found it to be really good and true.
Very True actually. I remember once when I was a kid, I saw my dad rush home with blood all over his shirt …My mom was terrified for a moment..but soon we realized he wasn't hurt. My dad quickly explained that he was trying to help an injured person on the way to office..he picked up the bike key and left. Later that evening my dad returned and I saw a lot of satisfaction in his face. He said " You know what, the person survived!!". Me and my mom felt glad too. My dad turned towards me that day and spoke " Madhu…U know what many a time in life most people act as mere watchers to ghastly incidents. If only I got few minutes late in taking that person to the hospital today he would have died. Try to push yourself into doing something in such situations…try not to be in that crowd dear" I am proud of my dad and his bold advise 😉 n his ability to overcome the bystander effect!!