The Bystander Effect

From Wikipedia:

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

(via Best of Wikipedia)


  1. However, if one of the bystanders is from the Seinfeld cast it may very well be videotaped.

    At least according to the series finale anyway.

  2. I’ve actually experienced this personally, and I felt guilty afterwards.

    I watched a man having a seizure cross the centerline and head-on a minivan immediately in front of me. I have occupational first aid, and I carry an intermediate kit as well as a large fire extinguisher in my truck.

    All that I ended up doing was getting out of my truck and calling 911. I guess I figured that another of the numerous bystanders would provide help if needed. I ended up just leaning against my truck for half an hour waiting to give a statement to the police.

    “Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing (nothing), they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed.”

  3. i’m the same way with comments in message boards.
    the more comments there are on a page by the time i get there, the less likely i am to leave a comment of my own.

  4. The bystander effect is sometimes used to show how callous society is (or “is nowadays.”) But it’s probably more tied into herd behavior. I recall a surveillances video of people in line at a liquor store. A small (but growing) fire had broken out in the back. People looked at it but kept their place in line until it was so big they had to flee for their lives. It was surreal to watch.

  5. I first heard of this in Psych 101 during college. I don’t know about others, but since learning about this effect I try to make a conscious effort to act in situations that may call for it. Very recently I saw a woman laid out on the sidewalk having a seizure. Two or three people were watching her, one man on his cell phone. I asked him, “Are you calling for help?” To which he replied no, “but I was about to!” Right. Fortunately, we were literally feet away from a hospital so I flagged down a nurse to assist.

    Similarly, I’ve read that when there is a crowd in an emergency situation and you happen to take charge, be sure to assign people with specific tasks. If you say, “Somebody call 911!” likely no one will do it. But point to some guy and say, “You. Call 911 now!” he becomes personally involved and will probably follow instruction.

    @Rampage_Rick – I have absolutely no credentials for saying this, but it sounds to me like you did exactly the right thing. Call 911 and leave the rest to the professionals. If a fire had broken out, I’m sure you would’ve made use of that extinguisher, but moving around victims of a traffic accident without EMT experience may not be the best idea.

  6. I think it may be a matter of distributed responsibility. If three people see a situation requiring help, each is 33% responsible to give or get help. If 100 people see such a situation, each is only 1% responsible. The lower your responsibility, the less likely you’re going to act.

    An actual psychiatrist may now jump in to comment.

  7. The book Opening Skinner’s Box talks about the effect of knowing about bystander apathy and the diffusion of responsibility being a higher likelihood of reacting quickly in an emergency. If you know you’re less likely to respond when in a crowd, you make yourself respond.

  8. I observed an interesting variation on this many years ago. I was driving through the park and saw a car stopped off the road with the driver lying on the ground beside its open door. He was alone and not moving. No one was stopping to help him. I have to confess I drove right by, figuring he must be a passed out drunk or something. An hour later on my return trip he was still there, so I stopped and walked over to see if he was OK. As soon as I knelt beside him, two cars stopped and their drivers got out to ask if he and I needed any help. The trick was someone had to be the first, then others would join in. But someone has to be the first. And yeah, he was a passed out drunk.

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