It’s raining, you’re late, and a car ahead of you just spun off the road and slammed into a tree. As steam hisses from the wrecked car’s hood, you must decide in a second or two whether to keep going or pull over and help.
It is the bystander’s dilemma, an ancient ethical conundrum that pits an individual’s most basic instincts — survival and safety — against the interests of another. Sometimes the failure to act doesn’t matter, but other times, the consequences are deadly, as in the case of Hannah Graham, a University of Virginia student murdered in 2014.
The young woman might be alive today if bystanders who saw her with the killer and sensed trouble had intervened, authorities say. But good people see bad things and fail to get involved with troubling frequency.
Bullying expert Barbara Coloroso says only about 13 percent of children will step in to help another child in trouble. The remainder she calls “non-so-innocent” bystanders — passive enablers who allow protective impulses in their brains to throw up a barrier to action that can allow bullying, murder and even genocide.
“The bystander effect” posits that the more people witness a crime or accident, the less likely it is that someone will step forward to help. The term was coined by psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley after a woman was murdered outside her New York City apartment in 1964. Witnesses heard the screaming, but no one intervened or summoned police.
“We’d all like to think that when we see something bad happening — a person injured in an accident or someone being assaulted — that we’d step forward to render aid. But in reality most of us don’t; it’s inconvenient, or we don’t want to get involved, or we think someone else will stop to help. And although some people won’t take the initiative to help, they will take the time to photograph or videotape the event and post it on the Internet,” wrote Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo in Psychology Today.
But the bystander effect can also work for good: If one person does break through the psychological barriers and make an effort to help, others are more likely to help, too.
Experts say recognizing the forces that keep us from helping others is the first step to overcoming them. In other words, we can learn to be Good Samaritans ourselves, and raise children in a way that makes them likely to act heroically, too.
“Bystander education” is one way schools and universities are working to create a culture of caring.
Helping even when it costs
To help protect women from sexual abuse, college campuses have taken the lead in creating bystander-education programs. At the University of Virginia, which Hannah Graham attended before her death in 2014, a program called “Hoos Got Your Back” (the Cavaliers are colloquially known as the Wahoos) teaches students — and the greater Charlottesville community — how to safely intervene if they sense someone is in danger.
Other programs start even earlier, teaching children to become active, not passive, observers when they witness bullying on the playground or in schools.
“Getting kids at a very young age to care deeply about others, to be willing to stand up, even if it costs them, is important. If they have been taught this as children, they are more willing to step in as adults,” said Coloroso, author of “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander.”
The effectiveness of bystander-education programs has been the subject of several studies, including one published in 2012 that examined the beliefs and attitudes of college students ages 18-22 before and after participating in a program. The study found a significant increase in the participants’ intention to intervene, as well as a greater sense of personal responsibility.