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

To Conclude

We cannot just explain people’s reluctance to help through apathy or indifference. More people simply being present leads to less helping. Although the number of bystanders has a strong effect on helping behavior, it seems possible to override this when using the right interventions. Knowing these can be helpful when you will find yourself as a bystander and would like to be a good humanitarian, or if you will find yourself in such an emergency as a victim and need help yourself. I described three helpful interventions for both of these situations. First, we can be better helpers when we notice emergencies by being aware of what happens around us (Darley & Batson, 1973). Second, we can be better helpers when we don’t just assume that others reactions resemble the truth about what’s going on in an emergency situation (Aronson & Akert, 2007), Third, we can be better helpers when we tell ourselves that we are responsible to get to help even when others are around, thus negating diffusion of responsibility (Darley & Latané, 1968).

What might be even more important is how we can get others to override the bystander effect when we need help ourselves. First, we have a bigger chance to receive help when we would make the situation clear to the bystanders if possible (i.a. Felson & Feld, 2009). Second, we can get people to override the bystander effect when we address them individually so they will feel responsible (Shaffer et al., 1975; Markey, 2000). Third, we can increase our chance to receive help by addressing the tallest and heaviest person around (Huston et al., 1981).

So are we all jerks? Maybe we were but hopefully not after you read this article. There seems to be several ways to become a better humanitarian in an emergency and there are several ways to promote helping behavior among bystanders. The proposed actions to encourage people to help you as a victim seem simple, but if you know them well, they can save your life.


Aronson,E., & Akert, R.M. (2007). Social psychology. London: Pearson.

Beaman, A., Barnes, P. J., Klentz, B., & McQuirk, B. (1978). Increasing helping rates through information dissemination: Teaching pays. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 406–411.

Darley, J.M., & Batson, C.D. (1973). ‘From Jerusalem to Jericho': A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 100-108.

Darley, J.M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377–383.

Felson, R. B., & Feld, S. L. (2009). When a man hits a woman: Moral evaluations and reporting violence to the police. Aggressive behavior, 35, 477-488.

Huston, T.L., Ruggiero, M., Conner, R., & Geis, G. (1981). Bystander intervention into crime: A study based on naturally-occurring episodes. Social Psychology Quarterly, 1, 14-23.

Latané, B., & Darley, J. M. (1970). The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? New York: Appleton-Century-Croft.

Levine, M. (1999). Rethinking bystander nonintervention: Social categorization and the evidence of witnesses at the James Bulger murder trial. Human Relations, 52, 1133-1155.

Levine, M., Prosser, A., Evans, D., & Reicher, S. (2005). Identity and emergency intervention: How social group membership and inclusiveness of group boundaries shape helping behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 443-453.

Markey, P.M. (2000). Bystander intervention in computer-mediated communication. Computers In Human Behavior, 2, 183-188.

Milgram, S., & Hollander, P. (1964). Murder they heard. Nation, 198, 602-604.

Shaffer, D.R., Rogel, M., & Hendrick, C. (1975). Intervention in the library: The effect of increased responsibility on bystanders’ willingness to prevent theft. Journal of applied Social Psychology, 5, 303–319

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

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