Overcoming the bystander effect

This syndrome is seen across the world, and is a social phenomenon that goes against every theory of social support 
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations)
For representational purposes (Express Illustrations)

A recent Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) study on racial discrimination and hate crimes found that people from the Northeast were being victimised and attacked amid the pandemic. People called them ‘coronavirus’ because the “northeast Indian seamlessly fits (an) Indian’s imagination of  a Chinese person.” They “faced an increased number of hate crimes against them” from various parts of the country after being “harassed, abused, and traumatised.” 

Since these attacks were happening in public, why did nobody interfere? Each time such a video is posted online, netizens are outraged that nobody intervened. This syndrome is seen across the world, and is a social phenomenon called the bystander effect. It goes against every theory of social support because in theory, people are less likely to help a victim when there are more people present. 

The phrase was coined in the 1960s by psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley. They analysed the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964, when she was stabbed to death outside her apartment. None of her neighbours responded to her pleas of help, despite being perfectly aware that she was being stabbed.

According to US psychologist Dr Todd Lucas, a reason for the bystander effect is diffusion of responsibility the more the witnesses the less likelihood of help. You see that every day. People avoiding a scene while a woman is assaulted in public. Voyeurs filming an accident on their phones without offering to help the dying person. The presence of a crowd dilutes the sense of responsibility for a single person to respond. Psychologists and social professionals blame the desire to fit in on the bystander effect.

People who are social animals take their cues from a crowd if others are not taking something seriously, then it is not serious. The scary consequence of the bystander effect is that by not intervening, passive witnesses are paving the ground for potential harm. Its worst impact is on the victim: “It sends a message to the victim that people don’t think they’re worth helping,” says an activist for women’s rights.

Anyone can be gripped by the bystander effect. The solution to be proactive is to acknowledge when somebody needs help; they might actually need it. If nobody else is intervening it does not mean you shouldn’t. Lucas also suggests that one person stepping forward creates a chain reaction pushing those around to act. 

What happens when you are the victim of a crime or accident when people are standing  around watching? Sociologists recommend you to identify someone who looks sure they might help and appeal directly to them. People-powered movements against harassment like Hollaback offer courses that teach about the bystander effect and how to overcome it. In many cases, intervention can be better than immediate cure.

Getting over it
● Educate yourself about the bystander effect and introspect about what you can do next time
● Invest in people’s emotions sincerely by actively reaching out in non-emergency situations. This will enable you to act swiftly when there is a dire situation.
● See people as deserving of help irrespective of whether you know them or not
● Coach yourself to not worry about what people say
● Choose altruism

In a nutshell
Bystander effect is when in a serious situation, (or an emergency) observers stand in silence. They do not intervene. It results in inaction, especially when there is a crowd and nobody steps forward to help. One of the reasons why people do this is out of shock. It makes them freeze. A sudden rush of fear is felt making them unable to move into action. Situational factors are responsible too. This is seen, especially, in cases of sexual harassment of women in public places where sexist mindsets prevent people from helping. In other cases, people assume they are not equipped to handle the situation. This phenomenon is also seen because people assume the matter at hand is not serious enough. 

According to US psychologist Dr Todd Lucas, a reason for the bystander effect is diffusion of 
responsibility the more the witnesses, the less likelihood of help

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