Shawn Meghan Burn
Source: Shawn Meghan Burn

On February 2, 2017, 19-year-old Pennsylvania State student Timothy Piazza died after participating in a fraternity hazing “drinking gauntlet” at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. His intoxication led to multiple falls, including a headfirst fall down a 15-foot flight of stairs. No one sought medical attention for Piazza until more than 12 hours after his initial injury, despite the fact that, according to a grand jury, his condition was “obvious and noticed by fraternity members and other pledges.” So far, eight members of the fraternity have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault. In all, eighteen members face charges on these and other counts.

The Piazza case and others like it, tell many social-psychological tales. They illustrate how the need for belonging can promote dangerous conformity and obedience, how groups use difficult initiations to cement commitment, and how some masculinity cultures promote life-endangering risk-taking. But here I focus on the tale of bystander (onlooker) apathy. It’s worth considering what went wrong in the bystander intervention process. After all, if partygoers had intervened earlier and with appropriate action, Piazza might be alive today.

I began my study of bystander intervention in 2006 and recently conducted a review of bystander intervention research and theory. The bottom-line: The decision to intervene is complex and there are many potential social-psychological and situational barriers that can thwart bystander action. These common barriers explain why Piazza died and carry lessons for all of us.

First, is a failure to notice barrier. Some bystanders don’t help because they are unaware of another’s distress. For example, in party situations, people getting their “drink on” are often oblivious to the dangers befalling other partygoers, including alcohol poisoning and sexual assault. It is likely that some bystanders failed to even notice that Piazza was struggling. Lesson 1: If you are a party host, be prepared to monitor your guests and intervene to prevent them from harming themselves or others. Before going to a party, create a buddy system where you agree to look out for one another and have a plan for handling trouble.

A second barrier to bystander action is ambiguity. Sometimes bystanders notice a situation, but fail to diagnose it as worthy of intervention. Indeed, one problem with alcohol-related deaths of this sort is that bystanders often have trouble telling the difference between “normal” and potentially deadly intoxication and so they do not intervene. Aware/Awake/Alive, an organization founded in the wake of the death of college student and fraternity pledge Carson Starkey from alcohol poisoning, is one of several dedicated to educating college students about blood alcohol levels and the signs of alcohol poisoning. Lesson 2: Get educated to reduce ambiguity. Learn the signs of stroke, heart attack, overdose, and other problems. In this case, learn about blood alcohol levels and impairment so you can accurately identify when intervention is needed and so you can safely pace your own and others’ alcohol use.

When people are concerned but uncertain about the need for intervention, they commonly take their cue from other bystanders. After Piazza’s fall down the flight of steps at least one fraternity member texted his fraternity brothers that Piazza needed help. Rather than seek medical attention, they instead carried Piazza up the stairs and tried to rouse him. Periodically, he got up and fell again, likely adding to ambiguity over the need for additional intervention. A member who thought medical attention was needed was told he was being overdramatic and he backed down. Lesson 3: Be a rebel. If your “gut” tells you that medical attention is needed or authorities should be called, be assertive even if others don’t seem to care or think you’re overreacting. Don’t assume that other bystanders are better judges of the situation than you are.

A third barrier operating in the Piazzo case has to do with taking responsibility for intervening. Some bystanders fail to intervene because they don’t think it’s their job or they assume someone else will do it. In research I conducted on bystander intervention and sexual assault, I found that party-going bystanders often place intervention responsibility on party hosts or on the friends of the victim or perpetrator. Other research finds that bystanders often place responsibility for intervention on the authorities in the situation. Due to the fraternity’s status hierarchy, it appears that some witnesses felt it was up to the fraternity’s executive board to decide how to respond. Lesson 4: Don’t be too quick to abdicate your intervention responsibility or to assume that someone else will act responsibly—it may very well be up to you. And, if you are a party host, know that the safety of your guests is considered your responsibility so it’s best to intervene before disaster occurs.

A fifth barrier, audience inhibition, occurs when bystanders fail to act because they fear social judgment if they do. Fraternities, for example, often have norms of secrecy and loyalty that protect their organization and members from the legal or institutional consequences of underage drinking and hazing. Violating those norms comes with high social costs. These norms not only interfered with Piazza getting the help he needed, they resulted in a cover-up that ultimately landed the fraternity in even more trouble. Lesson 5: If you are a bystander, don’t let the potential short-term social costs of bystander intervention obscure the long-term costs of inaction.

I wish colleges and universities would collaborate with students (and Greek organizations) to develop alcohol risk-reduction programs. Such programs should be designed to help students drink more responsibly and overcome common barriers to bystander intervention. Unfortunately, many administrators and parents believe risk-reduction programs condone and enable student drinking. They call for stronger bans and punishments on drinking and hazing but fail to see that this approach has inadvertently created additional, sometimes deadly, obstacles to bystander intervention. In the absence of parental and university support, it may be up to student leaders to develop these programs and norms supporting bystander intervention.

References

Burn, S.M. (2017). Appeal to bystander intervention. In R. Parrot (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Health and Risk Message Design and Processing. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

Burn, S.M. (2009). A situational model of sexual assault prevention through bystander intervention. Sex Roles, 60, 779-792.

Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., ... & Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 517-537.

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