“The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation,” says psychologytoday.com.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of the ‘bystander effect’ and how prevalent it is in our everyday lives. While Psychology Today states in their definition that this occurs during an ‘emergency situation’, I do believe this happens in many other situations than those that are considered ‘emergency’.
Whenever I hear the word ‘bystander’, I’m immediately brought back to a vivid memory of my 8-year-old self sitting in a classroom, listening to my teacher lecture on and on about the concept of bullying. The lesson ended with my teacher demanding that none of us become ‘bystanders’ when we witness a person being mean to another person, which, at that age, meant cutting in front of someone in the lunch line. “If you notice someone being mean to someone else, think to yourself, ‘would I want someone to talk to me that way?’, and if the answer is no, then tell them to stop,” was the basic message of the lesson. Of course! thought my naive little mind, why would I just stand around if I saw one of my friends being made fun of?
If only it were that easy.
Where it really got blurry was when I entered high school. It witnessed people whom I cared about around me dealing with situations of bullying and ridicule from others. When I took these concerns to trusted adults and friends around me, I often heard the same messages: Stay out of it, don’t get involved, it’s their problem to figure out, not yours.
Here I was, thinking back on what my third grade teacher told me. I wouldn’t want anyone treating me badly, so why let my friend suffer? We all like to think we would intervene, however, not at the expense of our own public reputations. Where do we draw the line between choosing our battles and defending what is right?
To put this on a larger scale, I’ve been studying a lot recently about the ‘bystanders’ of the Holocaust in my Holocaust and Genocide course. While reading accounts of the civilians who witnessed their own neighbors being brutally attacked and forced out of their homes, my first thought was to question why no one intervened. In the mid-to-late 1940s during the Nuremberg Trials, the toughest decision to be made was to determine who was guilty of hate crimes, who was guilty of being an accomplice to murder, and who was guilty for the millions of murders themselves. Who do you hold accountable when millions of people had to be involved in the killings of more than ten million people?
A common explanation or excuse for those put on trial can be simplified into one statement: I, too, was doing what I had to do to stay alive. I wasn’t Jewish, so I stayed out of it.
Do we blame those who made the decision to protect their family rather than risk their lives in order to protect innocent strangers? Do we blame the countries who chose to turn a blind eye to the atrocities taking place in order to keep their citizens out of war?
While genocide may the extreme, there are many parallels that can be noticed with smaller cases of bullying. Studies have shown that the likelihood of intervention while witnessing an act of bullying or criminality lessens as the amount of people nearby increases. Why is it that we lose empathy for others in the face of a situation that may threaten our social standing? Is it human nature, or the exact opposite of it?
While it takes courage to stand up for what is right, we have created a society in which the mere concept of being an upstander, rather than a bystander, is more appealing than the actual action itself. We are taught to speak up for what we believe is right, but only when it agrees with the popular opinion. We are told that we must feel empathy for others, but immediately view them as the ‘other’ when they are in danger.
While the act of speaking up may be difficult, especially when society often shames those who do, it holds a level of importance that we often oversee.
“Beyond the Bystander Effect.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/grasping-risk/201707/beyond-the-bystander-effect.