Saturday, 7 December 2013

Bystander - The Bystander Effect and Diffusion of Responsibility

Photo by Alan Cleaver


Noun. Mid-16th century.
[from BY- + STANDER.]

A person who is standing by;
a passive witness; a spectator.

On 13th October 2011, Yue Yue, a two-year-old from Guandong, China, wandered out of her house while her mother was rushing to bring in laundry from a thunderstorm. Yue Yue walked into a busy but narrow market street where she was hit by a van, falling under the front wheels. The driver stopped but didn't get out, before slowly driving away, running over Yue Yue's legs with the back wheels. While she lay in the middle of the street, at least 18 people passed Yue Yue, skirting around her in their vehicles, stopping to stare or just stepping around her without a pause, during which time another truck ran over her with both front and back wheels. Yue Yue lay in the street for seven minutes, bleeding and crying, before a woman who was scavenging for rubbish finally stopped to help her. Yue Yue died in hospital eight days later.

In July 2008, Cristina and Violetta Djeordsevic, two Roma girls who were 12 and 11 respectively, drowned in front of onlookers on a beach near Naples, Italy. The girls had been begging and selling trinkets with two other girls before all of them went in to swim. The girls quickly got into trouble in the rough sea, and their screams attracted the attention of some on the beach who were able to help two of them get out - Cristina and Violetta, however, died in the water; their bodies were pulled onto the beach and covered with towels. The photo that shocked Italy, of the two dead girls on the beach with seemingly unconcerned holiday makers sunbathing in the background, provoking fierce debate in the country about both racism toward Roma and the glaring apathy toward loss of life. The girls' bodies lay on the beach for an hour before being collected, while those around them went back to sunbathing and playing football.

Everyone is a bystander at some point, but researchers have often sought to explain why anyone would show such wanton indifference with regard to rendering aid to those in distress. A number of theories exist, including the Bystander Effect, which says that the probability of a bystander helping someone is inversely related to the number of bystanders there are - thus, a person is more likely to give aid if he is the only bystander (or one of a few) than if he is one of many bystanders. A number of other factors come into play, including ambiguity of the situation (not being sure if the person really does need help) and the so-called diffusion of responsibility which is the voice in every bystander's head telling them "There are so many people here, someone else must be doing something."

This aspect of human psychology is deeply disturbing. We all need help at times, and there will be times when those that we love need the help of strangers. Yes, it does take courage to be the one to speak out, to step forward or to offer aid; no one wants the responsibility of someone else's life on their hands; perhaps rather trivially, no one wants to look stupid, or be seen to do the wrong thing: "No, thank you very much - we don't need your help. Could you mind your own business please?" But from a purely selfish point of view, what's a moment of embarrassment or inconvenience when compared to living with the knowledge that someone died or suffered because of your inaction, because you selfishly skirted around little Yue Yue, crying and bleeding on the rain-soaked market street. In those instances, all of us can be a hero - all of us can do something to not be that bystander.

Please leave your comments below.


  1. You wrote that well Mr Ed, I had tears in my eyes before the end of the first paragraph.
    As you said, we all need help at some point, even when we don't want to admit it.

    I have a hard time comprehending how anybody can ignore somebody who is in need.
    To me it's not even a courage thing, it's a why-the-hell-are-you-not-doing-anything thing.
    But I guess we all have different values.
    I'll stick to mine.

    1. Thank you Jingles. I remember the first time I read the case of Yue Yue a number of years ago, and I feel as sickened to the stomach when I read it now as I did back then. My Mum was a big believer in helping people - she taught me the wonderful story of the Good Samaritan from an early age - and she used to say that the very least anyone could do is to call the police. I've never been in a situation where there any lots of lots of bystanders, so I've never felt that pressure, but if we're all at least aware of the bystander effect, of the possibility of it making us do something we will regret for the rest of our lives (and for someone else paying for it with theirs), then we can be better prepared to attack it, overcome it, and become more human,

  2. This is quite the powerful post. It makes me think of two things:

    I was told at some point that if I ever was in trouble and needed help that I should shout "fire!" instead of "help!" because people would be more likely to react.

    It also makes me think of the "tragedy of the commons," which might relate to the inaction of bystanders. That sense that "surely, one of these other people will do something. It's not really my problem" is widespread and truly damaging to humanity.

    Thank you for this post, Eddie.

    1. Thank you Katie.

      Yes, I've heard that regarding shouting 'Fire!' too, and, yes, a lot of the interviews I read of people who did remain bystanders in circumstances that seem so shocking said that they just didn't want to get involved, that it was something someone else should be dealing with.

  3. I think when people are in a group they need someone to be in charge. And yet in a scenario, like on that beach, obviously no-ones in charge so no-one does anything.
    Whereas if someone's on their own, they're in charge of the situation so they get help.
    That's what I think anyway.

    1. I think you're right.

      If a group does nothing and later you're asked about it, you can say (or tell yourself) "I thought somebody was doing something," but if you were on your own, what defence would there possibly be?