The Bystander Effect: Why Don’t We Help When We Should?

Social psychologists have conducted extensive research on the Bystander Effect, which is a well-known phenomenon. This phenomenon refers to the tendency of people to remain passive and not help others in need when they are in the presence of others.

The more people there are, the less likely any one of them is to take action. This can happen even when the situation is dire and requires immediate action. Sadly, this phenomenon happens much more often than it needs to, and we lose many lives to the effect.

Here are some examples of when the bystander effect can happen.

  • School bullying
  • Work-place bullying
  • Rape
  • Sexual Assault
  • All kinds of abuse
  • and more…

Factors That Contribute to the Bystander Effect

A while ago, I watched a video on TikTok about a man stabbing another man in a train in Toronto. The witnesses, who are also the passengers on the train, chose to avoid involvement in the dangerous situation and ensure their own safety by fleeing the scene.

This incident is an example of the Bystander Effect, where people tend to remain passive and not help others in need when they are in the presence of others. A factor that I believe contributes to the effect is:

Avoiding Personal Danger

While watching that TikTok video, I could see the frightened looks on their faces and how desperately they didn’t want to involve themselves, in the case they would also be in danger of being stabbed. It, then, made me wonder; if I were in that situation, what would I do? If YOU were in that situation, what would you do? I know what I would do. Point blank, I would run.

For many of the train passengers, I would like to believe that when the choice of fight or flight came up, they chose flight. The sight of any form of danger triggers our instinctive response of fleeing, and we often interpret it as the only way to survive. Hence, they chose to run.

Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

– Elie Wiesel

There are three psychological factors that also contribute to the bystander effect. The first is:

Diffusion of Responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility is the feeling of having less responsibility when more bystanders are present. The more witnesses there are, the less of a chance we have to help is a mentality many people roll with.

“I don’t have to worry. Someone will help him because there are more people here to do that.” “Good thing I’m not the only one here. Surely, there has to be an actual doctor who will offer her help.” “I don’t know what I can do. There has to be someone who is at least more qualified than I am.”

When there are less people, then there is more of a chance for someone to intervene.

Pluralistic Ignorance

Pluralistic Ignorance is the belief that because no one else is helping, the situation is not actually an emergency.

It is a phenomenon in which people in a group assume that others possess full knowledge of the situation and are aware of the appropriate course of action. As a result, they conform to the behavior of the group, even if it contradicts their personal beliefs or values.

This can result in a lack of action or intervention when it is needed the most, leading to disastrous consequences. In other words, people tend to think that because no one else is reacting, the situation must not be an emergency, when in fact, it could be a life-or-death situation.

The Bystander Effect on Social Influence or Social Inhibition
Social Influence or Social Inhibition

Evaluation Apprehension

The fear of unfavorable public judgment when helping is what evaluation apprehension is. This occurs when individuals feel anxious or nervous about helping others, due to the possibility of receiving unfavorable public judgment.

This fear can be especially prominent in situations where the other bystanders will likely observe the helper’s actions, such as in a public setting or in the presence of a large group of people. The fear of negative evaluation can also stem from concerns about appearing incompetent or being perceived as weak or vulnerable.

However, it is important to note that by framing the situation in a positive light or by providing reassurance that the one appreciates and values the helper’s actions, we can overcome evaluation apprehension. Understanding evaluation apprehension can help people overcome their fears and be more effective helpers in different settings.

Real-Life Examples of the Bystander Effect

As previously mentioned, the bystander effect occurs with greater frequency than necessary. So, let’s explore some real-life instances of the bystander effect.

Murder of Kitty Genovese

On the night of March 13th, 1964, of Kitty Genovese was murdered by a man named Winston Moseley. Kitty was a young woman who was returning home from work late at night when she was attacked and brutally murdered by named Winston.

Winston Moseley had been driving around for hours with a hunting knife before he spotted Genovese and attacked her just steps away from her apartment building. After initially fleeing the scene due to Kitty’s screams, Winston Moseley returned upon seeing her lying in a hallway, barely conscious.

Witnessing this, Winston stabbed her repeatedly and then raped her before finally stealing money from her. It wasn’t until about thirty minutes later before Kitty’s close friend found her and waited with her until the ambulance came. Unfortunately, Kitty Genovese died before making it to the hospital.

It was reported that 38 bystanders heard and saw the attack on Kitty Genovese but did not take any action to help. This case became famous and sparked a national debate about the responsibility of individuals to intervene in situations where others may be in danger.

Diagram produced by Joseph De May based on the map used during the 1964 trial of Winston Moseley to trace the route of his attack on Kitty Genovese and the location of witnesses to the crime, 2004. This creates the term Bystander Effect
Route of Attack Map

In 1964, during the trial of Winston Moseley, a map was used to show the route of his attack on Kitty Genovese and the locations of witnesses. The map was created by Joseph De May in 2004. Shown above is the diagram.

“The measure of a civilization is in the courage, not of its soldiers, but of its bystanders.

Jack McDevitt

Sakshi Murdered in Public by Ex-boyfriend

This case involves a 16-year-old teenage girl who tragically lost her life on the busy street of Delhi after being stabbed and hit with a slab of concrete by her ex-boyfriend, Sahil. Sakshi’s rejection of the 20-year-old man enraged him, leading him to commit the violent act.

Case of the bystander effect - Indian 20-year-old man murdering 16-year-old ex-girlfriend due to rejection.
Dead due to unaccepted breakup.

In the CCTV footage, Sahil repeatedly stabs Sakshi with a knife, pinning her to the wall. He pauses to adjust his grip after the knife gets stuck in her skull, then strikes her head with a nearby cement slab.

Although one man attempted to help Sakshi, at least 10 people were seen walking past without intervening. Unfortunately, some individuals chose to observe the situation without taking any action or alerting the authorities. This is an example of diffusion of responsibility.

“What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”

Elie Wiesel.

Ways to Overcome The Bystander Effect

Social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane came up with a a five-step decision-making process before intervening in any emergency situation.

  1. And the first step is to notice that something is wrong. If something feels wrong, proceed to step two regardless of how urgent it seems.
  2. After noticing that something is wrong, define the situation as an emergency.
  3. Thirdly, assume personal responsibility to help. Some articles say “decide who takes responsibility” and this is usually in the case of if there are more bystanders or the relationship between the bystander and the person in need. However, choosing to take responsibility is also choosing to be safe in case of a great emergency. The least anyone can do is call the authorities.
  4. Which leads us to step four: choose how to help. There are various ways anyone can help, such as calling the authorities, seeking help from others, or implementing frontline expert skills (if confident enough).
  5. Last step is actually implementing that chosen helping behaviour.


The Bystander Effect occurs frequently and social psychology well-documents this phenomenon. People tend to remain passive and not help others in need when they are in the presence of others. However, by understanding the underlying causes of the effect, we can take steps to overcome it.

Some of the ways to overcome the Bystander Effect include acknowledging the situation, taking personal responsibility, and seeking help from others. It is important to be aware of the phenomenon and to take action when we see someone in need.

By doing so, we can make a positive difference in the lives of others and help to create a safer and more compassionate society.

Anita Adefuye, the author, shares her story of sexual abuse, low mental health, suicide, and how she overcame them all. Today, she is the founder of LoudSilences and more.

Her book, Reve-Healed – A true story of pain, healing, and hope, is available for purchase. Get yourself a copy today!

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