Heroism vs. The Bystander Effect

When we stand up and speak out we can change the world.

Posted Apr 30, 2018

Phil Zimbardo
Source: Phil Zimbardo

Many of us have been raised to try to live by the altruistic proverb known as “The Golden Rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But in more recent times, instead of being purely altruistic, “The Rule” seems to have bent to reflect reciprocal altruism: I’ll help others now and one day, when I need help, others will be there for me. And unfortunately, The Golden Rule is challenged on a daily basis.

People in need of help don’t get the support they require. Instead, too often, they avert our eyes, turn their heads and pass quickly by. This behavior is so common, in fact, that researchers have given it a name; they call it The Bystander Effect or Bystander Apathy. The term was coined by social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, who were teaching in NYC in the 1960’s when the now infamous Kitty Genovese murder occurred there. Despite her screams for help to ward off her assailant, none of the many residents in her large apartment complex came to Kitty’s aid. In the wake of that shocking tragedy, they and other researchers set out to answer the question, “Why does this happen?”

Would you help?

We’d all like to think that when we see something bad happening – a person injured in an accident or someone being assaulted – we would step forward to render aid. But in reality most of us don’t; it’s inconvenient, or we don’t want to get involved, or we think someone else will stop to help. What’s more, even though some people won’t take the initiative to help, they will take the time to photograph or videotape the event and post it on the internet. Surprisingly, studies over the last 45 years have proven that the greater the number of people observing an emergency, the less likely they are to help. Why is this? What happened to The Golden Rule? And what can we do to be more socially involved?

Why we don’t help

One reason may be that when a situation is unclear, we look to others for clues to understand what is happening. We then make decisions based (sometimes incorrectly) on other people’s actions, reactions or lack of action. This is known as pluralistic ignorance – when the group’s majority privately believes one thing but mistakenly assumes that others believe the opposite. As a result, they conform to what they think others believe, taking our cues from what we assume others know. Have you ever driven past a car on the side of the road, for example? Did you assume that, because all the other cars were driving by, the person in the car didn’t need help?  Pluralistic ignorance occurs frequently and in diverse situations.

In her article, "Why Don’t We Help? Less Is More, at Least When It Comes to Bystanders," Melissa Burkley shared a couple of important examples of pluralistic ignorance that help explain why her undergraduate students often fail to ask questions in class. For instance, one of her students is confused about the class material just covered and wants to ask Burkley to clarify. Before raising her hand, though, the student will likely look around the room to see if any of her fellow students seem confused or have their hand up as well. If no one else looks puzzled, she will conclude that she is the only one in the room that didn't understand the material. To avoid looking stupid, she may decide not to ask her question. But as a teacher, Burkley discovered that if one student is unsure about the material, odds are most of the class is also uncertain. So in this situation, the class suffers from pluralistic ignorance because each one assumes they are the only one confused, when in fact many of the students are confused. As a result, no one speaks up and they all remain confused. The same process can occur when we witness an ambiguous emergency situation. Bystanders typically look to each other to determine whether they are witnessing a crime, and if no one reacts, they will all conclude – wrongly in many cases – that this is not an emergency. As a result, no one steps up to help.

Diffusion of Responsibility

According to studies conducted by Darley and Latane, diffusion of responsibility is the second reason for the bystander effect. In their years of research, they discovered a paradox: the greater the number of eyewitnesses, the less responsibility each witness felt to help. How does that end up? If  everyone assumes someone else will help, no one actually helps. After interviewing study participants, Darley and Latane discovered that although their bystander subjects were by no means individually unsympathetic, they didn’t feel personally responsible enough to do anything. When others are present, people typically help only 20% of the time – but when there is only one bystander, the likelihood of helping skyrockets to 80%. Yet we are generally unaware of how strongly we are being influenced by the presence of others. What is that invisible social norm that silently emerges in those crowded bystander situations? Do Nothing. when research participants observe videos of those situations, 100% reply they would intervene; meaning our good intentions are overridden by the external social norm of "mind our our business."

What we can do

If you and several fellow bystanders are in an emergency situation, remember that your instinct – as well as the instinct of those around you – may be to not render aid. A powerful case in point happened in Italy a couple of years ago when a young woman was burned alive by her former boyfriend on the street and people quickly drove by instead of rendering assistance. We wonder what was going through the minds of those who did not stop - most likely fear. And the image of the young woman screaming for help is forever burned in their memory as well as the thought that that they could have saved her life; they didn't. But when we are aware of pluralistic ignorance and the diffusion of responsibility, we can break through those powerful invisible barriers and take action. Once any one person helps, in seconds others will join in because now there’s a new social norm taking over: Do Something Helpful. That is the Power of One.

There is also the Power of Two:  If you need assistance in helping someone, look another bystander straight in the eyes and ask for help. A personal appeal to a specific individual breaks through the diffusion of responsibility, and that person will typically jump right in and help as soon as you ask. The same is true if you are the victim:  Don’t yell “Help”, but instead ask a particular person near you to do a specific thing. For instance, tell the bystander in the blue shirt to lift you up, and the one holding her dog to call 911.

Heroic Imagination Project

Phil Zimbardo
Source: Phil Zimbardo

The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) was developed by Phil Zimbardo to help teach individuals the skills and awareness needed to make effective decisions in challenging situations. Each of us is a hero-in-waiting, and by learning some basic skills we become Heroes-in-Training. A number of programs have been designed to help people gain meaningful insights and concrete tools they can use every day to transform negative situations and create positive change. People of all ages are taught how to be everyday heroes by standing up, speaking out, and taking wise and effective action. To learn more about the Bystander Effect and how to counteract it, check out Phil’s non-profit Heroic Imagination Project.

Each of us has an inner hero we can draw upon in an emergency. If you think there is even a possibility that someone needs help, act on it. The key is learning to become an Everyday Hero who suppresses egocentric needs to become socio-centric. No more I and Me. Instead, help create a world where the focus is: We and Us. Your effective, reflective action may save a life. You are the hero that can make the world a better place for all of us, starting in your family, school, business, and community. Collectively, in hero squads, we can change our nation for the better.


Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility by Darley, J. M. & Latané, B. (1968). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

The unresponsive bystander: why doesn't he help? by Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1970). New York, NY: Appleton Century Crofts.

Why Don’t We Help? Less Is More, at Least When It Comes to Bystanders by Melissa Burkley. Psychology Today, November 4, 2009. 

Why Crowds Make Us Callous by Sam Sommers, Psychology Today, October 19, 2011. 

Living & Loving Better by Phil Zimbardo and Rosemary Sword, McFarland, October 2017.