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The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, against a bully, or during an assault or other crime. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to provide help to a person in distress. People are more likely to take action in a crisis when there are few or no other witnesses present.

Understanding the Bystander Effect

Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley popularized the concept of the bystander effect following the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964. The 28-year-old woman was stabbed to death outside her apartment; at the time, it was reported that dozens of neighbors failed to step in to assist or call the police.

Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect to two factors: diffusion of responsibility and social influence. The perceived diffusion of responsibility means that the more onlookers there are, the less personal responsibility individuals will feel to take action. Social influence means that individuals monitor the behavior of those around them to determine how to act.

How to Be an Active Bystander

The intervention of bystanders is often the only reason why bullying and other crimes cease. The social and behavioral paralysis described by the bystander effect can be reduced with awareness and, in some cases, explicit training. Secondary schools and college campuses encourage students to speak up when witnessing an act of bullying or a potential assault.

One technique is to behave as if one is the first or only person witnessing a problem. Often, when one person takes action, if only to shout, "Hey, what's going on?" or "The police are coming," others may be emboldened to take action as well. That said, an active bystander is most effective when they assume that they themselves are the sole person taking charge; giving direction to other bystanders to assist can, therefore, be critically important.

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