Living in a safer world: Offering help when surrounded by others for the sake of reputation

But how does bystander intervention typically work? The classical bystander effect actually shows the reverse pattern of what we speculate on here: Typically, people’s willingness to offer help in fact decreases when many others are present (Darley & Latané, 1968). Additionally, when they decide to help, people usually reach this decision much slower. Many people find it hard to believe that one is not willing to offer help to somebody in need. Therefore, it is commonly assumed that those who do not help must be generally apathetic and indifferent. Despite these beliefs, the lack of help can be explained differently. The social and psychological forces at play during a bystander effect situation can be very strong, and yet subtle and concealed for those involved. Chances are that without knowing, today, you have been in a situation and acted like an apathic bystander. For instance, an email with a request for help, addressed to an entire group, is often shrugged off under the pretence that someone will likely respond to it; that tourist who looked completely lost is better of getting help from someone who is more knowledgeable about the city, and those boys fighting on the playground must simply be brothers frolicking around (see also Levine, 1999). People who do not offer help in studies about the classical bystander effect are therefore just “regular people”, i.e. not dispositionally apathic or excessively selfish. And actually, most of the time are non-helpers more upset about the situation and the person in need than people who do offer help (Darley & Latané, 1968).

Although everybody can be susceptible to this bystander effect, and the effect can be very strong, there are fortunately some strategies to attenuate this effect. Schilder (2013) mentions in her recently published article three of these strategies. First, as a victim, you have to make the situation clear to the bystanders. If bystanders do not understand what is going on, they can rationalize that there is no emergency, and believe that they therefore do not have to offer help. Second, you have a bigger change to receive help when you make bystanders feel responsible. One way to do this is by addressing bystanders individually. Finally, it is best to address those people who have ‘helper’ characteristics (e.g. tall and heavy people).

Despite the efficacy of these strategies, they all require you to have knowledge about the typical bystander effect. Moreover, the victim must also be able to perform these strategies. Perhaps there is a more structural solution, which does not require prior knowledge. Related to Schilder’s (2013) second strategy, the feeling of responsibility, recent research by Van Bommel and colleagues (2012) suggests another solution for the reluctance to offer help. They argue that having increased public self-awareness reverses the typical bystander effect. People who are aware of their public image focus more on the impressions they make on others (Prenctice-Dunn & Rogers, 1982). Moreover, they believe they will be held accountable for their behavior, and the presence of many bystanders will increase this feeling. Being aware of the reputational costs and rewards of your behavior makes you motivated by concerns of what others may think of you (Van Bommel et al., 2012), and you want to make sure that others don’t think badly of you. Moreover, helping those in need is likely to increase one’s status (Hardy & Van Vugt, 2006). Therefore, if you behave well, the presence of others can provide you with an opportunity to promote your status. It stands to reason that helping somebody to increase your reputation is more effective when many bystanders are present than just a few. Therefore, people will be more inclined to offer help in the presence of others. Evidence in support of the position of Van Bommel and colleagues (2012) can be found in research showing that your willingness to offer help can increase when your group identity becomes salient (Levine & Crowther, 2008) and by the fact that you are reluctant to offer help when other bystanders are not able to see you (Darley, Teger & Lewis, 1973). Hence, when others cannot see you, they cannot hold you responsible.

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