Bystander

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Britannica English: Translation of bystander for Arabic Speakers. What made you want to look up bystander? Please tell us where you read or heard it including the quote, if possible. Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way. Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!

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Listen to the words and spell through all three levels. Many people have never encountered such a situation and have little experience to guide them during the pressure-filled moments when they must decide whether or not to help. Several decision models of bystander intervention have been developed. A bystander must notice that something is amiss, define the situation as an emergency or a circumstance requiring assistance, decide whether he or she is personally responsible to act, choose how to help, and finally implement the chosen helping behaviour.

Failing to notice, define, decide, choose, and implement leads a bystander not to engage in helping behaviour. In another decision model, bystanders are presumed to weigh the costs and rewards of helping.

Bystander effect

Bystanders rationalize their decision on the basis of which choice helping or not helping will deliver the best possible outcome for themselves. In this model, bystanders are more likely to help when they view helping as a way to advance their personal growth, to feel good about themselves, or to avoid guilt that may result from not helping. Social influence plays a significant role in determining how quickly individuals notice that something is wrong and define the situation as an emergency.

Research has shown that the presence of others can cause diffusion of the responsibility to help.

Hence, social influence and diffusion of responsibility are fundamental processes underlying the bystander effect during the early steps of the decision-making process. In general, positive moods, such as happiness and contentment, encourage bystanders to notice emergencies and provide assistance, whereas negative moods, such as depression , inhibit helping.

However, some negative moods, such as sadness and guilt, have been found to promote helping. For example, studies have demonstrated that victims who yell or scream receive help almost without fail. In contrast, other events, such as a person suffering a heart attack , often are not highly visible and so attract little attention from bystanders.

The Bystander Effect - The Science of Empathy

In situations where the need for help is unclear, bystanders often look to others for clues as to how they should behave. Consistent with social comparison theory, the effect of others is more pronounced when the situation is more ambiguous. For example, when other people act calmly in the presence of a potential emergency because they are unsure of what the event means, bystanders may not interpret the situation as an emergency and thus act as if nothing is wrong.

Their behaviour can cause yet other bystanders to conclude that no action is needed, a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance. But when others seem shocked or distressed, bystanders are more likely to realize an emergency has occurred and conclude that assistance is needed. Other social comparison variables, such as the similarity of other bystanders e. In sum, when the need for help is unclear, bystanders look to others for guidance. This is not the case when the need for assistance is obvious.

When a person notices a situation and defines it as requiring assistance, he or she must then decide if the responsibility to help falls on his or her shoulders. Thus, in the third step of the bystander decision-making process, diffusion of responsibility rather than social influence is the process underlying the bystander effect.

Urban Dictionary: bystander

Diffusion of responsibility refers to the fact that as the number of bystanders increases, the personal responsibility that an individual bystander feels decreases. As a consequence, so does his or her tendency to help. Thus, a bystander who is the only witness to an emergency will tend to conclude that he or she must bear the responsibility to help, and in such cases people typically do help.

But bystanders diffuse responsibility to help when others are present. Diffusion of the responsibility is reduced, however, when a bystander believes that others are not in a position to help. For example, in one study, participants who believed that the only other witness to an emergency was in another building and could not intervene were much more likely to help a victim than were participants who believed that another witness was equally close to the victim.

Diffusion of the responsibility to help is increased when others who are viewed as more capable of helping e.

We Are All Bystanders

But when the costs of helping and not helping are both high, bystanders feel a strong conflict between the desire to act and the fear of helping. Bystanders often resolve this conflict by concluding that someone else will help i. For example, in a library patrons are expected to be quiet and in a classroom students may speak up in a respectful and orderly way, but at a party people may be much less inhibited.

We remain bystanders. Why do we sometimes put our moral instincts in shackles? These are questions that haunt all of us, and they apply well beyond the fleeting scenarios described above. Every day we serve as bystanders to the world around us—not just to people in need on the street but to larger social, political, and environmental problems that concern us, but which we feel powerless to address on our own. Indeed, the bystander phenomenon pervades the history of the past century.

Their findings reveal a valuable story about human nature: Often, only subtle differences separate the bystanders from the morally courageous people of the world. Most of us, it seems, have the potential to fall into either category. It is the slight, seemingly insignificant details in a situation that can push us one way or the other. Researchers have identified some of the invisible forces that restrain us from acting on our own moral instincts while also suggesting how we might fight back against these unseen inhibitors of altruism.

Taken together, these results offer a scientific understanding for what spurs us to everyday altruism and lifetimes of activism, and what induces us to remain bystanders. Among the most infamous bystanders are 38 people in Queens, New York, who in witnessed the murder of one of their neighbors, a young woman named Kitty Genovese see sidebar.


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A serial killer attacked and stabbed Genovese late one night outside her apartment house, and these 38 neighbors later admitted to hearing her screams; at least three said they saw part of the attack take place. Yet no one intervened. One of those psychologists was John Darley , who was living in New York at the time.

A main goal of their research was to determine whether the presence of other people inhibits someone from intervening in an emergency, as had seemed to be the case in the Genovese murder. In one of their studies, college students sat in a cubicle and were instructed to talk with fellow students through an intercom.

They were told that they would be speaking with one, two, or five other students, and only one person could use the intercom at a time. There was actually only one other person in the study—a confederate someone working with the researchers.

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Early in the study, the confederate mentioned that he sometimes suffered from seizures. The next time he spoke, he became increasingly loud and incoherent; he pretended to choke and gasp. Before falling silent, he stammered:. In contrast, only 62 percent of the participants who were in the three-person situation and 31 percent of the participants in the six-person situation tried to help. Similarly, the witnesses of the Kitty Genovese murder may have seen other apartment lights go on, or seen each other in the windows, and assumed someone else would help. The end result is altruistic inertia.

To test this hypothesis, they ran an experiment in which they asked participants to fill out questionnaires in a laboratory room. After the participants had gotten to work, smoke filtered into the room—a clear signal of danger. When participants were alone, 75 percent of them left the room and reported the smoke to the experimenter.


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  • With three participants in the room, only 38 percent left to report the smoke. And quite remarkably, when a participant was joined by two confederates instructed not to show any concern, only 10 percent of the participants reported the smoke to the experimenter. There are strong social norms that reinforce pluralistic ignorance. It is somewhat embarrassing, after all, to be the one who loses his cool when no danger actually exists. That interpretation was reinforced by the fact that no one else was responding, either.

    A few years later, Darley ran a study with psychologist Daniel Batson that had seminary students at Princeton walk across campus to give a talk.