Are we all jerks? Why nobody helps when surrounded by others

How Can We Get People to Help?

Although people are less likely to help when more bystanders are present, people do help in some cases. For example, people are more likely to come to help when they have heard of the bystander effect before. Students who heard about the bystander effect in class were more likely to help compared to students who did not know about this effect (Beaman, Barnes, Klentz, and McQuirk, 1978). In the following section I will name three possible ways to reduce the bystander effect, which could help you if you are ever to find yourself a victim and need assistance.

When we know what is going on.

It would be wise to make the situation clear to the bystanders as a victim since the likelihood of helping also depends on whether the bystander understands what is happening. For example, people are more likely to help when they know that a strange man hits a woman than when he they think that he is her husband. This is because else people will rationalize that it is something private, and use that as an excuse to not help. People will assume that the offender is her husband more often and will not help consequently (Felson & Feld, 2009). Another example is the two boys who murdered James Bulger, a two and a half year old boy, with possible helpers present. The bystanders later declared that besides the fact that they did not know how serious it was, they did not intervene because they thought that these boys were brothers. The fact that they saw the three boys as members of the same family might have made them reluctant the help as an outsider (Levine, 1999). This is in line with another finding showing that people are more likely to help someone who they perceive as a group member than one from a different group (Levine, Prosser, Evans, 2005). But whatever exactly is the underlying reason with these examples, the victims might have been helped by a bystander when the situation would have been more clear to the bystanders. This could avoid potential rationalizations and consequently make people more likely to help.

When we are addressed personally.

Furthermore, it would be wise to address one of the bystanders personally when you need help. People are more likely to help when a victim addresses him or her personally (Shaffer, Rogel, & Hendrick, 1975). Another study aligns with this finding. Two fictional persons sought help by asking all participants in a chat group, “Can anyone tell me how to look at someone's profile?” or by randomly selecting one participant and addressing him or her with his or her name. When they addressed someone personally, it overrides the effect of the number of bystanders. While this study seems trivial, it is particularly important in showing that directly addressing people in bystander situations seems to get people to provide help. So when you are in a situation that requires immediate assistance, you may want to call for that one particular person with the blue shirt.

When we have ‘helper’ characteristics.

If you indeed find yourself in such a situation, which person is most likely to come to the rescue? Huston, Ruggiero, Conner, and Geis (1981) interviewed 32 people who helped in dangerous criminal episodes such as street muggings, armed robberies and bank holdups. They compared this group of ‘interveners’ with a group of ‘non-interveners’. Interveners reported that they saw more emergencies in their lives and experienced more situations in which they were the victim compared to the non-interveners. The most significant difference between the two groups was the amount of training they had that might have assisted their helping behavior (Huston et al., 1981). People who had training in first aid, life saving, medicines or police training were more likely to help in emergencies. This was also the case when the particular training was not applicable in the particular helping situation. For example, people who had life saving training were also more likely to help in non-health related emergencies. The researchers argued that the training reinforced the intervener’s self-image as a person who is able to help others. The interveners also had different physical characteristics compared to the non-interveners. The helpers were taller in inches and they were a few pounds heavier than the non- helpers. So according to this study, it is best to address the people with some training in helping behavior, and when you don’t have that information; your best pick is to address the tallest and heaviest person around (Huston et al., 1981).

From the editors

Janneke Schilder’s article managed to fully engage me in the complexities surrounding the bystander effect. There’s good reason why it has the most views of all the articles on our new website! Janneke does not just provide an overview of the bystander effect, but asks the fundamental question: what can we do about it?

Of all the ways to mitigate the bystander effect, one in particular captured my attention. Beaman and colleagues (1978), mentioned above, presented teaching material on the bystander effect to undergraduate students. At a later date, these students were called into the lab for seemingly unrelated studies. The students who attended the bystander effect lectures were much more likely to help the victim of a bicycle accident (Study 1) and a man fallen down on the institution's corridors (Study 2). In fact, in the first study, 67% of students who had been taught about the effect helped, compared to only 27% in the control group. The reasoning behind these results is that participants who learned about the bystander effect knew others around them will be unlikely to help, therefore they knew it was their responsibility to intervene in an emergency situation.

This got me thinking about whether communicating the bystander effect in our InMind Magazine might have any effect on our readers. What do you think? Do you think reading about the effect will make people more likely to help in emergency situations?

Before you answer (and I do hope some of you will), I will leave you with one more thought. Beaman and colleagues were inspired to carry out the study above by Kenneth Gergen’s 1973 article ‘Psychology as history’, an article that significantly shook the social psychology field at the time. Among other ideas, he proposed that by communicating research about psychological effects, psychologists will alter people’s behaviour, and therefore those psychological laws that we communicate will stop applying to this changed public. Learning about obedience will make us less obedient, about bystanders less of a bystander, to the point that the laws we learned about do not reflect people’s behaviour anymore. What do you think of that idea?

Does reading of bystanders make you less of a bystander? And could this have the potential to change the laws of helping behaviour as we know them? Don’t be a bystander, pitch in to the conversation!

Diana Onu
Associate Editor

article author(s)