The Bystander Effect

While watching CNN this morning, I happened to see a certain news story about a car-jacking, caught on tape, where what appears to be an African American man repeatedly punches a 91 year old man in the face in an effort to get his keys and his car.. What is surprising is not that this incident happened, but that there were about six able bodied people a few meters away, who did absolutely nothing while this was happening.

I have often wondered what I would do if I was in a situation that called for intervention. It is not easy to be truthful with oneself in this regard. I would want to believe that I would intervene, but being a non-confrontational person myself, I know I would hesitate. If an incident were happening and there weren’t any people close, I would probably poke my nose in. But if there were a large number of bystanders around, I definitely would think thrice about getting involved. For one, I would not be sure about what was happening, and the fact that no one else was acting would make me hesitate to make a fool out of myself. And that is a terrible thing to do. Though I am quite sure, if I saw a 91 year old man punched up by a young male, I would do something.

This behaviour is called the Bystander Effect or the Genovese Effect. It states that:

The larger the group or the more people that are present during the emergency, the less likely it is that anyone will render assistance.

I find this quite disturbing and quite true. The more people around, the less i feel like intervening.

I wonder how this situation would have played itself out in Sri Lanka. I feel that people here are far more involved with each other. Nosy would be another way to describe it. Whether it be in the village, at a shop or in the bus, you’d find a few strangers interacting with each other, chatting or complaining. People here (trying not to generalize) feel less inhibited to poke their fingers. I used to find that annoying, but now I feel that its quite useful in a way. You will at least find one person to lend a helping hand.

If you ever end up being a bystander and are not sure whether to act, follow these simple steps:

    • Notice something is happening
    • Interpret the situation as an emergency
    • Assume personal responsibility
    • Choose a form of assistance
    • Implement assistance

And if ever you are in a situation where you need help,


Talk to people directly. Make eye contact. If possible, use people’s names; if not, point. Tell exactly which people to do what. Do not yell indiscreetly for help but do let people know that it is an emergency situation.

It doesn’t hurt to be a good Samaritan.





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