[Person and Situation] Inhibition of Bystander Intervention

Note: This is my attempt to read the book Person and Situation. I am but an interpreter of these ideas.

In 1960s, a girl was stabbed repeatedly by an assailant before more than 30 witnesses and no one helped her. It turns out that people ignoring cries for help is not a symptom of increased individual apathy but has something to do with the characteristics of the situation. In particular, they had been inhibited by the presence of other potential altruists and their apparent failure to intervene in the same situation.

Group situations can inhibit bystander intervention in two ways:

  • First and the more obvious way is the diffusion of responsibility caused by the presence of the bystanders. In other words, a bystander has no reason to bring on himself the burden of full responsibility of intervening which others are not willing to share.
  • Second, it makes the bystanders interpreting the situation differently when there are multiple bystanders. The lack of intervention by others my signify that intervention may be considered inappropriate or embarrassing. In other words, the presence of many bystanders change the way the situation is construed in terms of what the appropriate response may be.

It’s a vicious cycle where the initial presence of many bystanders make them less likely to come forward as an individual to intervene. And as this effect lasts long, it makes other bystanders who happen to walk by interpret the situation differently in a way that intervention is an inappropriate response because nobody else is doing it.

In fact, the victim is more likely to receive help when there is a lone bystander rather than when there are multiple. In a Columbia study, individuals working alone on a questionnaire and individuals working with confederates are led to believe that a female experimenter on the other side of the wall had a bad fall. Over 70% lone bystanders intervened, but only 7% of individuals sitting next to impassive confederates did.

So to summarize, next time you’re on the street and you’re in a situation where help is demanded, point to a particular person to ask for help, rather than crying out into the thin air. Another application which is more relevant to today’s world of social media, is to PM directly to someone and tell him/her your troubles, instead of posting a status talking about how you feel to your facebook wall.

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