The Bystander Effect: Why we don’t always act and what we can do about it

(published in Bonjour France, 19 March 2017)

TheSans titre other day, like many days in this beautiful city, I found myself stuck in the chaos that is the RER A with trains delayed for up to 2 hours. People were naturally frustrated, it being rush hour and all, but someone’s frustration got the better of him as he aggressively lashed out at transport personnel and security was eventually called. Nobody reacted (except for a few head nods) and nobody intervened (myself included).

Our increasingly (false) sense of anonymity, especially when living in a large city, can directly defuse our sense of responsibility as social influence leads us to turn the other cheek when witnessing a distressing situation. Be it out of fear of getting hurt ourselves or just not being aware of the danger the situation poses to someone else, we are more likely to intervene and help someone when no one else is around… in a crowd, we’re a bystander.

The “Bystander Effect” is a psychological phenomenon that refers to situations where people do not offer any kind of help to a victim when other people are present. J. Darley and B Latané first popularised the concept showing how the probability of help can be directly related to the number of bystanders present.

On social media our ‘outrage’ is shown by sharing viral videos of bullying, discrimination and often downright illegal acts against others. We share this with the best intentions to raise awareness and stop things like this from happening again, but when push comes to shove, would we act and help when witnessing such a scenario in real-life?

The Bystander Effect can be seen in many situations from bullying at school or the workplace, harassment in public , to dangerous protests that run out of hand. This does not mean people are scum and we enjoy witnessing others getting hurt.  In many cases, people feel that since there are other people around, surely someone else will leap into action.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the reasons why we freeze and refrain from helping others, and what we could do about it?


Fear and uneasiness 

Sometimes we don’t know the entire backstory of what we are witnessing and doubts lead us to question whether we should intervene or not. We are afraid we might make a fool of ourselves if our intervention is not appreciated and we look to our peers for guidance and asses their reactions to the same situation. If nobody else takes action, perhaps we don’t fully understand what is happening and we best mind our own business, right?


Often when faced with something out of the ordinary, we don’t immediately recognise what is happening nor how to react to it. Our delayed reaction in helping someone in distress could merely be as a result of our brain still processing what it is witnessing.

“Diffusion of Responsibility” 

Research shows when others are around, our personal sense of responsibility decreases. We believe that someone else would have probably called for help already, or is doing something to help. We are more likely to help others if we are alone, as we feel the responsibility to act relies solely on us.

Minimal knowledge or qualifications 

In some cases (especially medical emergencies) we tend to stand back and wait for someone with the right qualifications or experience. We’re afraid we might hurt the person even more as we wait for a professional to intervene.

Minding our own business 

We’ve all experienced or heard stories where someone has tried to help someone in alleged distress, and their good deed went and bit them right back in the bum as they got involved in a tricky situation and got hurt themselves. To avoid any hassles, we turn the other cheek and mind our own business.

Misinterpretation of a situation 

Adding onto the above point, we often look away because we wrongly assess a situation or are influenced by common misconceptions. You’d be surprised at what is considered ‘okay’ these days as we witness a woman being harassed, even though she was flirty earlier; or we watch a man get into a bar fight with two others, but he’d been drinking so perhaps he started it …

Now that we understand some of the reasons why we don’t always jump to act, we could look at ways to overcome this psychological phenomenon and be more aware ourselves.

I’m not suggesting we all go wear superhero capes and go vigilante on anyone showing inappropriate or dangerous behavior, but rather, how can we start with ourselves in diminishing this diffusion of responsibility and engaging in our own helping behaviors?



Recognising the signs can make a big difference. Signs can be noticed, by trusting our intuition or educating ourselves on certain topics.

Example: An air hostess was able to recognise the signs of human trafficking on one of her flights when she saw a well-dressed man accompany a raged and distressed teenager. She approached the girl behind the man’s back and quickly found out the girl was being taken away against her will. She was quick to notify police on the ground, who were waiting to interrogate the man as they landed.

Another example, perhaps more recognisable in our everyday life, was when a young woman was being harassed by a man on the metro. He was not being overly aggressive, however, was subtly whispering threats and harassing her physically amongst busy morning commuters who did not seem to take notice, or thought it was a couple having a small dispute. One woman saw the girl’s irritation/anxiety and pretended to know her to strike up a conversation. The man quickly left the girl alone and excited the train.

Sometimes being aware of a situation and acting, however small this may be, could help someone and change the outcome of a potentially negative or dangerous scenario.

Witness or Role model helpful Behavior 

Sometimes we just need to think what we would want people to do, if we were in the “victim’s” situation. What if that had been my daughter, son, friend, parent, sibling… Sometimes just seeing other people doing something kind or helpful makes us more willing to help others.

If we’re too afraid to get hurt ourselves, or we see that our direct intervention would only escalate the situation, call for help.

If we see that action from a few people could deter the ‘attacker’, make eye contact with others and try to solicit a group intervention.

Sometimes making eye contact with or simply acknowledging the ‘attacker’ and their behaviour can be enough.

Education and Training

Knowing specific ways to help in certain situations can often be enough to give us the confidence to act and help. People who have been trained professionally in assisting in emergency situation, often find it second nature to help others where needed.

We don’t need to go and study for years to get the right qualifications in order to help others. Often we can find community training workshops related to sexual assault, self-defense, bullying, recognizing suspicious behaviors etc. Such programs teach us the best (and safest) way to react in certain situations. When all else fails, we can do some personal e-learning online and read up on topics that may interest us.

For example, since the terror attacks in France, campaigns have increasingly informed people on how to recognize, and report suspicious behaviors, abandoned luggage, signs of radicalization and general safety tips in the event of another attack.

Just remember that it only takes one person to stand up and say ‘this is wrong’ in order for others to see it and act too.

Always try to help somebody in whichever way possible, because you might just be the only one …


“Master of Puppets”: Dealing with Manipulative Personalities

It’s safe to say that manipulative behaviour is something we are all confronted with on a daily basis. It’s also something we’ve all been guilty of doing at one point or another. It can be as simple as trying to steer others into going to your favourite restaurant or blaming someone or something else for an unfortunate incident. It’s about as common a thing for us to do as gossiping, farting and picking our noses (common…you know you pick it…)

Sometimes, we come across people who take the manipulation up a notch as they will do whatever it takes to get their way. It’s a lot easier when someone is openly aggressive, because you can state: ‘oh ok cool. They’re an a**hole.’ respond and walk away. But manipulative behaviours are tricky to spot in the moment or we’re unsure how to respond when their behaviour is unexpected. We experience this at work, school and in our social circles. I know I’ve walked away from many situations before where I’ve kicked myself for not picking up on it sooner and got sucked in or where I realised I myself had resorted to manipulating someone (also not a very nice feeling).

Below are some common manipulative behaviours and suggestions on how you could approach these in order to nip it in the bud and set your own boundaries. Again, we’ve all been guilty of some of these ourselves, but there’s no harm in recognising that and trying to avoid it in the future.

1) Confrontational Statements
Statements like this are used to put you on the defensive and to suck you into having a fight rather than resolving the raised issue.
For Example: “Why do you always…”; “I thought you…”; “Are you telling me…”; “I thought we agreed…”

– You don’t have to respond defensively and try to avoid saying “I’m sorry…” if you are not. You can avoid a fight by simply stating things like: “That’s my decision”; “I’ll have to think about that”;
“We don’t always have to agree” or “You’re right” (and drop the subject).

2) The Guilt-Trip
Manipulative people often will try to make you feel guilty about doing (or not doing) something.
For Example: “Don’t you care if….”; “Every normal person would…”; “You could never do…”; “I thought that’s what you wanted”

– Try to recognise these and, when you hear it, ignore it or simply answer ‘no’. You may want to reply to the question/statement in order to defend yourself, but you’ll just get sucked into a debate or argument about why you did or didn’t do something wrong, rather than the issue at hand.
3) Selective Memory
You are certain you had a conversation about a plan or an event and everyone is on the same page, when just before, the manipulator pretends to remember the conversation completely differently.

– Record your conversations… if this is happening at work/school- meeting minutes can be signed off by all parties and e-mails can confirm tasks involved. Of course you won’t record plans to have a night out with friends (might put a damper on the fun there) but having a third person there to back you up can be helpful. Call them out on the fact that they conveniently change the game to fit their needs
4) The Blame Game
Manipulators often try to put the blame on someone else, consequently not taking responsibility for their action or opinion.
For Example: “We were wondering if you…”; “They said you…”; “Everyone thinks you…”

– By asking them to identify “we”, “they”, or “someone” you’re essentially asking for the manipulator’s own point of view.

5) A Questionable Statement
Manipulative people will avoid asking questions, because it might give them the sense that they are no longer in control. So often they will make a statement with a question hidden inside.
For Example: “Perhaps you could…”; “I suppose you are going to…”; “I thought you would…”

– Try to answer questions only, and not statements. By repeating the last 3 or 4 words of the statement back to the manipulator, you might force them to admit it was a question.

6) Liar, Liar pants on fire

Compulsive lying is a common factor when people use manipulation. A few ways that indicate when someone might be lying include: adding unnecessary details to an explanation, pausing to think even though the answer should be evident to them or pretending not to know something that they clearly do, changing the topic of the conversation, and many more.

– It’s hard to pull up someone on lying because it can often result in more lying. Try to keep a distance and walk away from the situation where possible.

7) No Alternatives
When you are asked a question, where a choice seems to be given, but the answer has already been determined by the manipulator.
For Example: “Would you like an appointment at 3:00 or 3:30?” (Who says you wanted an appointment?); “Aren’t you happy that…”

– These can be tricky; but when you know you’re dealing with manipulative behaviours, be prepared and you can respond by saying things like: “I’ll let you know”; “I’ll have to think about that”; “No, I don’t want to” etc

8) I can’t believe it’s not butter
Manipulators will often compliment you or tell you what a wonderful job you did on something. ‘Buttering you up’ so to speak. Afterwards they then might ask you to something for them, or to look the other way as they believe you wouldn’t want to disappoint them after speaking so highly of you.

– If you are not comfortable with their request, return the compliments and politely decline or walk away.

9) Silence
Often manipulation can be paired with the silent treatment (something we’ve all tried to do at one point I’m sure, and for some it’s even a blessing in disguise!). Playing the game and waiting for someone to crack is an attempt to have the power and control.

– If you’re being ignored, put a smile on your face and tell them “Let me know when you’re ready to talk about it” and go about your business.

10) Bullying
Making fun of or demeaning others and their ideas, yelling and raising their voice, spreading malicious gossip, taking on a martyr approach (woes me) making threats or physically intimidating are all classic bullying strategies. They start in the kindergarten schoolyard, are enhanced through High School and in our professional lives and never go away until the day we leave this good Earth.

– Standing your ground and openly stating that their bullying tactics are inappropriate and unacceptable will put a name on the behaviour and identify your boundaries.

It’s important we know our own boundaries as to how far we let someone treat us negatively as well as how far we ourselves would go in manipulating others. I guess there is reason in the saying: “treat others the same way you would want them to treat you”.


pic by Aja from ‘Drawings’