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Bystander Effect

Do You Walk On By, or Help?

The Bystander Effect has contaminated our nation, including law enforcement

Source: Twitter

In the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, a man from the ancient city of Samaria sees another man in pain lying in the road. Many people ignored the man and passed him by; but the Samaritan stopped to help him. He followed The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In a perfect world, we would all help one another in times of need. We would perform the altruistic act of assistance, without expecting anything in return, or considering unintended consequences. And ideally others would stop and help us if we were in need of assistance.

But the Golden Rule is challenged daily, especially during the world-changing evolution our nation and the world is experiencing following the exposure of George Floyd’s murder. We all witnessed his life being extinguished under the knees of Minneapolis policemen.

And it’s especially challenging for law enforcement officers. In the past year or so, we’ve seen streams of upsetting images of injustice captured on video by first hand witnesses, most recently when it comes to law enforcement officers during peaceful protests. More often than not, people in need of help aren’t getting it from the police, even if civilian observers would like to help. Instead, they may avert their eyes, turn their heads, and pass quickly by, leaving the injured behind.

The Bystander Effect

Generally, this is known as the bystander effect or bystander apathy. That term was coined by social psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, who were teaching in New York City in the 1960s 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.

Although the multitude of situations law enforcement officers currently face are incredibly tense, stressful, and in some instances dangerous, we’re seeing something different and more insidious with some of their conduct. We’re observing behavior that is based on years of abuse; abuse of power and physical abuse of innocent, non-threatening citizens. In the extreme case of George Floyd, fellow policemen not only failed to call off Derek Chauvin, the officer in charge as he tortured and eventually killed Mr. Floyd, they willingly participated in his murder.

And we’ve seen it even more recently in the case of the 75 year old peaceful protester who was seriously injured after being shoved by two police officers in Buffalo, New York. When one officer tried to assist the fallen, bleeding gentleman, he was pulled away by his commander before he could render aid. The police report noted the peaceful protester simply slipped and fell, but video evidence from at least two vantage points proved the report to be wrong.

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 – that we’d step forward to help. 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 assist instead, or we don’t have the time. Add to this the militaristic hierarchy in law enforcement and training in which human nature - the strong desire in many people to help others - is thwarted and we can clearly see how the civil upheaval in our country and around the globe presents an impossible situation for those in their chosen field of work. Law enforcement officers who, in their off hours would readily offer assistance in times of need, are not expected to help those who have been injured during peaceful public protests. Protests, ironically, against needless police brutality.

Although some people can’t or won’t take the initiative to physically help, others will take the time to photograph or video the event and post it on the internet, which has made this kind of bystander a new type of hero. And as an aside, 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 become more socially involved?

Why we don’t help

One reason may be that when a situation is unclear, then we look to others for clues to define what is happening. This, along with orders from the commanders, is likely what some police officers experience during times of upheaval. They, and we the public, then make decisions based, sometimes incorrectly, on other people’s actions, reactions, or lack thereof.

This is known as pluralistic ignorance — when the group’s majority privately believes one thing and mistakenly assumes that most others believe the opposite. For instance, when we drive past a car accident, we might assume that someone else will call 9-1-1 or stop to help. Pluralistic ignorance occurs frequently and in diverse situations. For decades we’ve seen this type of response in the Catholic church in regards to admitting responsibility for the sexual abuse of children by many priests across many nations. And we’re seeing it in real-time during peaceful protests.

In her post, Why Don't We Help?, Melissa Burkley shares the following example regarding pluralistic ignorance:

"Let's say that one of my students is confused about the class material I just covered and wants to ask me to clarify. Before raising her hand, she 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 get the material. To avoid looking stupid, she may choose to keep her hand down and not ask me her question. But as a teacher, I have discovered that if one student is unsure about the material, odds are most of the students are. So in this situation, my class is suffering from pluralistic ignorance because each one assumes they are the only one confused, when in fact all the students are confused and all of them are incorrectly concluding that they are the only one.

"The same process can occur when we witness an ambiguous emergency situation. All the bystanders may look to each other to determine if they are witnessing a crime, and if no one reacts, then everyone will wrongly conclude that this is not an emergency and no one will step up and 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: that the greater the number of eyewitnesses, the less each witness felt responsible to help. The upshot is that if everyone assumes someone else will help, then no one does.

After interviewing study participants, the researchers discovered that although their bystander subjects were by no means individually unsympathetic, they didn’t feel personally responsible enough to do anything. The participants did not think they were influenced by other bystanders to help or not; so evidence indicates we are unaware of the influence others have on our decision making. In fact, we are unaware of the unwritten social norm that silently emerges in those situations: “Do Nothing”.

Darley and Latane determined that the degree of responsibility a bystander feels depends on three things:

  • Whether or not they feel the person is deserving of help
  • The competence of the bystander
  • The relationship between the bystander and the victim

This last point may explain some law enforcement’s behavior during the nationwide protests. Some officers may view all who profess to be peaceful protesters - including those who have a totally different agenda (looters, vandals, as well as organized and unorganized groups) in order to take advantage of the chaos as they commit crimes - as the “enemy.”

What You can do

As individuals, if you and several fellow bystanders are in an emergency situation, remember your instinct — as well as the instinct of those around you — may be to not render aid. But by being aware of the diffusion of responsibility progression, you may take action because we are all responsible for helping the victim. Once anyone helps, then in seconds, others will join in because a new social norm emerges: Do Something Helpful. That is the Power of One.

If you need assistance in helping someone, look a bystander straight in the eyes and tell them to help, or single out someone’s distinguishing feature - blue sweater, eyeglasses, pink face mask, and so forth. Pleading to a specific individual will make that person feel responsible and there is a good chance they too will pitch in.

You can also take charge and delegate tasks. This lessens the diffusion-of- responsibilities process. The same is true if you are the victim. Ask particular people near you to do specific things. For instance, tell the bystander in the green shirt to help lift you up, and another to call 9-1-1.

How to change systemic bystander effect in organizations

When it comes to the systemic bystander effect we see in organizations such as law enforcement, it will take a monumental shift in thinking and training to affect the change necessary to leave centuries of injustice behind and move forward. This may seem like an insurmountable task, but it can be done.

It will take a groundswell of individuals both inside and outside the Police establishment - like the peaceful protests demanding transformation - and the re-education of all, starting at the top of police agencies. Those who cannot or refuse to embrace what is fair and just would be weeded out and replaced with people who desire to be agents of this righteous evolution. And for those who consider themselves “good apples”, it may take putting their careers on the line to speak up and out about the “bad apples”and then demand they change or be changed. While it’s heartening to see new rules placed immediately in some law enforcement jurisdictions, we have a long way to go.

Each of us has an inner hero we can draw upon in times like these. If you think there is even a possibility that people need help, act on it. You may save a life or lives and be a part of a major shift toward a more perfect union and a brighter future. You are the modern version of the Good Samaritan that makes the world a better place for all of us. Do unto others what you would have done unto you.

For more information about everyday heroism, visit


Buckley, M., (2009). Why Don't People Help? New York, NY: Psychology Today

Darley, J.M., & Letane, B., (1968). Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Washington, D.C.: APA

Darley, J.M., & Letane, B., (1970). The Unresponsive Bystander: Why doesn't he help?. New York, NY: Appleton, Century Crofts.

Sommers, S. (2011). Why Crowds Make Us Callous. New York, NY: Psychology Today.

Zimbardo, P., & Sword, R., (2017). Living & Loving Better. Jefferson, NC: McFarland

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