Bystander Help

scary-woods-einsteinThere are many reasons why people help other people during a time of an emergency.  However, there are also many reasons why people do NOT help other people during an emergency.  The ‘bystander effect’ is the concept that if there are more bystanders to an emergency (lots of people who are watching the same event), the less likely any one of them will actually help.

In a landmark court case in 1984, Tracey Thurman sued a city in Connecticut, along with 24 of their police officers, because they did not help protect her against her husband.  She was attacked in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day, being stabbed a total of ten times, then hit and finally stomped on by her husband. There were over 20 people watching this brutal attack, but no one did anything but watch. A police officer arrived, 25 minutes after she had called 911, but did nothing to stop the beating. In fact, he did nothing until almost ten minutes later when more officers arrived. The abusive husband had no gun and only had a small knife, whereas the police officer had a baton and his state-issued handgun.

The example of Tracey Thurman exemplifies the concept of the ‘bystander effect’ where the presence of other people around actually inhibits anyone from helping.  The movie, “A Cry for Help” is a great dramatized version of this story.  With the bystander effect, there is the mindset that “someone else will help” even if you do not actually see anyone else helping.  You also get many people who just “don’t want to get involved” and will ignore an emergency event, especially if it is singular in nature like a man hitting a woman, or hearing screams outside your house rather than something like a natural disaster.

Advances in the more theoretical work and understanding of group processes has helped current researchers in their ability to re-evaluate the motivation on bystander helping. There is a concept of ‘we-ness’ that has been developing, which discusses how a person who is part of a group rather than out of a group, would be more likely to help someone of the same group. We see this all the time, with gang affiliations, and sport teams. If one of their members enters into a fight, the whole rest of them would jump in as well to defend not only that person, but the group as a whole.  The same can happen in reverse; if a person is alone, they would be less likely to help someone who was in a group.

The identity and physical location of an emergency can also have an effect on whether or not people are going to help. There is an issue of social- and self-categorization that helps to determine if intervention will be made. This is the concept that a person’s reason for intervention (or no intervention) in an emergency situation is based on how that person identifies with the group in which an emergency has occurred. For many people, trying to identify with someone who is in an emergency situation is one of the most prominent reasons why people help out other people.  As a bystander, a man may identify (and assist) a woman who is being hit by her husband because the bystander’s mother was beat by his father.  However, if a bystander cannot identify with the person in an emergency, they may be less likely to help, especially if the bystander is alone.

I find that bystander help can vary based on the age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, and location (Southern California versus middle Nebraska).  There are simply areas where bystander help is ingrained and is part of the culture as opposed to areas where you do not know (nor do you want to know) your neighbors thereby not needing or wanting to help.  Although I do not want to know my neighbors and I enjoy my privacy, I would still be the first person to help someone I didn’t know in an emergency and I am raising my children to be just as helpful.

Professor Mercy


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