Surely, at some point or the other, we have been appalled by instances of public apathy. We have seen or heard of real-life emergency situations where passersby just ignored a person in distress – someone lying on the street needing medical help, a case of molestation, or a theft being committed. And worse, there are times when the public just stood and saw the whole episode occur in front of their eyes.
These moments leave us with doubts about sensitivity, kindness, and humanity. In fact, many of us have felt rage and anger about how people could be so heartless. And we are left with a sense of ‘If I was there, I would have definitely saved the situation’. This question is worth pondering on. Would it really be different if we were present there? Why does this kind of public apathy happen? In psychology, this phenomenon has a term - bystander effect.
Rationally speaking, more the number of people who have noticed an emergency situation, more likely it would be that someone would come forward to help or call the police or ambulance. However, well-documented evidence points to the opposite. That is, the more the bystanders, the less likely it is that any one will intervene to provide aid. Strange?
There are a number of reasons for why people do not come forward to help in general. First, there are all sorts of tangible costs associated with helping someone – getting caught up with the police cases or the paperwork and money to be paid for the treatment if we take someone to the hospital. Then, there are intangible costs related to the uncertainty of what has happened – ‘If I try to intervene in a molestation case, would I myself get accused of the crime?’, ‘What is the intention of the person in distress?’, ‘Is he a drug addict or a criminal himself?’ Sometimes, the situations are ambiguous and one is not sure whether any help is needed in the first place. Not making a fool of oneself is the other kind of psychological cost that delays action.
Interestingly, research has shown that bystander apathy is significantly influenced by the presence of other observers. That is, seeing a person in distress, the likelihood of providing help is higher if one is alone as opposed to when one is part of a crowd. As the group of onlookers gets larger, another mechanism starts playing a role - diffusion of responsibility. Because we try to make sense of the ambiguous situation of why everyone else is watching the show, we try to assign plausible reasons – ‘someone else must have already taken action’, ‘this situation doesn’t deserve any action’, etc.
In fact, many social experiments have been conducted (several of these can be found on YouTube) to understand when do people come forward to help others. For example, just having one person take the initiative to offer help increases the likelihood that others would do so too. Again, when one person helps, the ambiguity of the situation resolves and we are reminded of what we should be doing.
Furthermore, the degree of connection between the help seeker and provider also has a dramatic effect. Similarity in terms of shared group membership or identity (e.g., the person belongs to one’s family, office, or group) increases bystander intervention. In a now-famous case from China, video footages showed passersby running away on seeing a foreigner faint. The conclusion was that one is not sure of the intention of strangers (outgroup members) and how to treat them.
Related, not coming forward to speak up is an important issue in an organizational context as well. Whistle-blowers are afraid of losing their relationships with people, of getting blamed in return, and dealing with bad consequences overall. Providing psychological safety and assuring anonymity helps in breaking this barrier.
Many countries such as Denmark and France have put in place ‘Duty to Rescue’ laws to get rid of such bystander problems where not helping someone (when one’s own life is not in danger) could invite penalties. In several other countries, reward programs of receiving money or badges have been put in place as an encouragement mechanism.
It takes one person to raise everyone else from the slumber and from the herding behavior. So, what can you do if you are stuck in an emergency situation and need help? Research evidence gives a simple solution: point out to any one person and provide a clear instruction of what help you need.