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What Makes One Person a Bystander and Another a Hero?

Unleash the Hero Within

Source: Guillem/iStock

Why is everyone looking the other way while a woman is harassed on the bus, a child is abused by a parent in the parking lot of a grocery store, or a stranger on the street is being attacked? Why isn’t anyone doing or saying anything? We all know that there are true heroes among us who will risk their own lives to help others. But what makes one person a bystander and another a hero? The answer is not as simple as “some people care and others do not.” There are reasons why we fail to step in to help. Some of the reasons might be that we do not recognize the seriousness of the situation immediately, we are unprepared to act or don’t know how, we hope that someone else will step in, or we fear getting hurt ourselves. However, there is another reason—one that might not make much sense at first—and that is we tend to copy other people’s behavior, especially group behaviors.

Derren Brown, a sociologist and magician, explains that social cues can influence our behavior (Brown 2018). He demonstrates this with an experiment in which he instructed three actors to sit down and stand up when a bell is rung while pretending to fill out a survey as real candidates are brought into the room. Those candidates were not aware that actors were amongst them, and as they filled out their survey, they copied the actors’ behavior without knowing why. They continued to stand up and sit down when the bell rang, even when the actors left the room. Brown shows with this experiment that cues from others around us can influence our behavior, a fact that is particularly relevant when it comes to helping others in public.

Bystander apathy

Bystander apathy is a term for the phenomenon whereby people are less likely to help if others around them are passive. A study (Darley and Latané 1968) shows that when we observe someone being threatened or hurt in public, we take cues from the crowd to take initiative to act or not. If nobody else is doing anything, we perceive that it must not be an emergency or not be appropriate to interfere. When we are in a crowd we actually need signs and indications from others who are present to know that we interpret the situation correctly and that others tacitly or openly approve of intervention or inaction.

Susanne Babbel
Source: Susanne Babbel

Without making excuses for those who do not react or try to help, being a bystander at the moment when someone is in need of help might not be a conscious choice. Inaction or action could depend on receiving the right cues from others and also on one’s own physiology, in particular the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is in charge of our fight, flight, and freeze reactions and how we respond (or not) to emergencies and crises. Studies (e.g., Darley and Latané 1968) show that our nervous system needs to be in stress and alert mode to trigger us to act and “fight” physically or mentally. If we don’t get the correct signals, our nervous system simply does not give us the urge to respond. That said, some people feel so overwhelmed by a sudden emergency that their alerted nervous system causes them to freeze, a feeling of simply being unable to move, whereas others feel the urge to run away (flight).

How to unleash the hero within you

Now that we know why at times we might become bystanders instead of helping others in stressful and traumatic situations, we can figure out how to move from being the bystander to becoming an active “helper.” We don’t have to be heroes and risk our lives, but we don’t have to look the other way when in fact we could do something that could make a difference in someone’s life.

Heroes identify danger, take personal responsibility, and have the skills and a plan to act quickly, whether it is with physical strength, verbal interference, or by knowing how to find the resources that are needed such as calling the police, child protective services, or other potential responders. Perhaps when we as a community educate each other to better identify harassment and abuse, everyone can recognize when such things are occurring and know when others are in need of support. After we learn to recognize harassment and abuse, we can learn what to do. Maybe if we gain awareness of the potential impact (such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)) that harassment and abuse have on victims, we will feel more compassion and be inspired say something or to step in and initiate helping actions. With knowledge and awareness, we might give more cues to ourselves and others, such as a simple look, facial expression, or body posture expressing “this is not right,” “help is needed,” and “something is wrong,” which can alert the nervous system in oneself and that of others to help.

Following are some ideas for learning to identify harassment and abuse, and a few suggestions on how to act:

Signs of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment occurs when someone makes sexually offensive remarks, demands sexual favors, or behaves, acts, or talks sexually in a way that is uninvited, unwanted, or without consent by the other person.

Signs of Abuse

You can spot physical abuse when someone is shaking, hitting, throwing, kicking, choking, or otherwise physically harming a child or adult (from Marshall 2012).

You can recognize emotional abuse when someone is using verbal or physical threats to harm or abandon another person, to intimidate, manipulate, control, or withhold love or affection, or to use inappropriate isolation (Babbel 2018).

You know when someone is verbally abusive when that person is using persistent name calling, screaming, shaming, insulting, embarrassing, belittling, extreme criticism, or humiliating the other with a sense of hostility (Babbel 2018).

You will be aware of neglect if the adult fails to provide for their child’s emotional needs, medical care, education, food, shelter, or other basic needs (Babbel 2018).

Now you can recognize harassment and abuse, which can enable you to give appropriate social cues to others, which in return might motivate them to help victims and therefore reduce bystander apathy. Learning to identify a dangerous situation is important, and knowing what to do is the next step to unleash the hero within you.

What to do when a person is being harassed or attacked:


Sarah Ann Harris (2016) proposes the following: “Engage the victim in a conversation, ignoring the harasser.” Check in with the person you are helping (the victim) to see what they need and escort this person to a safe place. Call the police if the situation is too dangerous or becoming violent.

A parent abusing a child:

Confronting, teaching, or lecturing the abuser directly in public on how he/she should behave could escalate the abuse. If you suspect abuse but do not know for sure, call your local Child Protective Services (CPS) or the 24-hour National Child Abuse Hotline at (800)-4-A-CHILD. Please know that you can call anonymously. If you are in a parking lot and witnessing abuse, write down the abuser’s car license plate number, along with a description of the child and parent, so you can contact the police. Please, think of the safety of the child and his or her future psychological state and do not protect the abuser by being silent.

Now that you have the knowledge and the skills to be a hero yourself, you are more likely to give the appropriate signals to others and therefore might ignite the hero not only in yourself but also in others. Since we all are wired to take clues from others, you may act as if you are not in a crowd to feel more personally responsible, but always make sure you are safe.

With a few skills and a plan for action, people can quickly coordinate and stand together to intervene, instead of being paralyzed by doubt and fear. In this way we all have a safer place in the world.


Babbel, S. 2018. Heal the Body, Heal the Mind: A Somatic Approach to Moving Beyond Trauma. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Brown, Derren. 2018. Derren Brown’s Bell Experiment:…

Darley, J. M. and Latané, B. (1968). "Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 8: 377–383. doi: 10.1037/h0025589.

Harris, S. A. 2016. Islamophobic Abuse: Cartoon gives Advice on How to Help if You Witness a Hate Crime.…

Marshall, A. N. 2012. “A Clinician’s Guide to Recognizing and Reporting Parental Psychological Maltreatment of Children.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 43: 73–77.

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