The social phenomenon explains why some people don't help when others are in danger—and it can be physically and mentally damaging.

By Korin Miller
April 01, 2021
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The data is clear: Hate crimes against Asian Americans have skyrocketed since the pandemic began. Anti-violence organization Stop AAPI Hate reported nearly 3,800 incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from March 2020 to February 2021, and New York City alone had an 867% increase in Asian hate crime victims in 2020 compared to the previous year.

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Credit: Getty Images / Design by Jo Imperio

What's most shocking? Some of these crimes have happened right in front of other people—who haven't stepped in to help. In a video that's now gone viral, a 65-year-old Asian American woman can be seen being thrown to the ground and repeatedly assaulted in full view of security guards in a building nearby. The security guards look out and clearly see what's going on, as one of them closes the door on her.

Plenty of people online have expressed shock and outrage that something like this could happen right in front of others, with no one rushing to help. But this kind of thing happens more often than you'd think. In fact, it's a social phenomenon with a name. It's called the bystander effect, and it's been well documented for decades. Here's what you need to know.

What exactly is the bystander effect?

The bystander effect is a social psychology theory that says that a person is less likely to offer help to a victim when more people are around, Todd Lucas, PhD, a social and health psychologist at Michigan State University, tells Health. "It's an irony of human behavior," he says.

The term was first coined in the 1960s by psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley who analyzed the 1964 murder of a woman named Kitty Genovese in New York City. Genovese was stabbed to death outside of her apartment, but none of her neighbors reacted to help her, even though they were aware of what was going on.

"It's really a classic example of unhelpful behavior," Victoria Banyard, PhD, associate director for the Center on Violence Against Women and Children at the Rutgers School of Social Work, tells Health.

Why does the bystander effect happen?

There are a few possible reasons for this. One is what Lucas calls "diffusion of responsibility." Meaning, the more people there are around, the less any single person feels responsible for helping in any situation.

People are also "social creatures" and we tend to react to social cues from those around us, Banyard says. "We want to fit in and, if other people seem to think this isn't serious, we tend to react the same way," she says.

Experts say this is potentially damaging on so many levels. On a very basic—but important—level, the bystander effect increases the odds that someone will get hurt. "There may be a chance to keep something from escalating and prevent someone from being harmed if people actually intervene," Banyard says.

But the bystander effect isn't just harmful on a physical level—it's damaging on a mental level for the victim, too. "It sends a message to the victim that people don't think they're worth helping," Banyard says.

What you can do to stop the bystander effect

It's easy to think you wouldn't fall victim to the bystander effect, but it's a common social phenomenon that has impacted plenty of others. If you notice something seems off in a crowd but no one else is reacting, Lucas recommends listening to your gut. "Be confident in your values and assessment of the situation," he says. "If you think somebody needs help, recognize that might be correct. Even if no one else is acting, it may be appropriate to act."

One person taking action can create a domino effect, where others recognize that there is a problem and step in to help, too, Lucas says. "You don't need to be the person that fixes the situation entirely—you just need to be the person who starts the chain reaction," he says.

If you're a victim in a crowd and no one is helping you, Lucas recommends singling out a particular person or looking for someone who seems like they could be helpful and appealing directly to them. "You can better overcome a bystander effect that way," he says.

Even simply being aware that the bystander effect is a thing can be helpful, Banyard says. Organizations like Hollaback and Step Up also have courses you can take to learn more about the bystander effect and strategies for intervening in different situations.

And, of course, if you see someone being victimized, do your best to intervene. "Take action," Banyard says. "It's simple."

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