July 7, 2021

Bystander Effect (Diffusion of Responsibility)

By Katelyn Redfoot


Have you ever witnessed an emergency and gone into total shock, or known somebody who has? It is a natural reaction, and it is typically a fear response. Whether you feared that getting involved in the situation would put your own life in danger or you worried you were too weak or incapable of helping, it is normal for people to freeze when witnessing an attack or a crime. The other possible fear response is that you did not trust your understanding of the context, so you avoided stepping in for worry you saw a threat when there was none.

Luckily, though, in the event of an emergency, another onlooker can step in and help when another one freezes up, right? This is a rational thought process to have, but unfortunately, it does not often play out this way. In fact, the more people there that are witnessing an assault or other crime, the more likely everyone will freeze, and the reason is not directly tied to fear. The reason is, shockingly, that the greater number of bystanders decreases the likelihood of someone stepping in to help a person in distress; it’s called the bystander effect.

The bystander effect occurs when other people’s presence discourages someone from intervening in an emergency situation, such as an assault or an encounter with a bully. The truth is that people are more likely to intervene and help when there are fewer or no other witnesses present.

The concept of the bystander effect first came about in 1964, following the event of the infamous murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death outside of her apartment in New York City after a late-night walk home from work. It was later reported that 37 neighbors watched it all happen, yet no one tried to assist or called the police. At the time, leaders attributed this response, or lack thereof, to the “moral decay” of the country. Yet, social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley were determined to seek an alternative explanation, which later became known as the bystander effect.

Latané and Darley developed a five-stage model to explain the bystander effect and why bystanders sometimes do or do not intervene and offer help in emergency situations.

These are the five stages of the bystander effect:

  1. The bystander notices something is amiss.
  2. The bystander defines the situation as an emergency.
  3. The bystander assesses how personally responsible they feel.
  4. The bystander decides how best to help.
  5. The bystander acts on their decision.

The answer ‘no’ at each stage results in no help being given, while each ‘yes’ leads someone closer to intervening and offering assistance. It is possible, for instance, that a bystander may respond ‘yes’ to stage one and notice a situation. Yet, at the next stage, they may not be able to readily interpret the situation as an emergency.

When it comes to an individual completing the entire sequence, Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect to three psychological processes that explain what can interfere with someone making it through stage 5. One of these processes is known as pluralistic ignorance, which is the tendency to rely on the obvious reactions of others when trying to define a situation not readily interpretable. This is also referred to as social influence, which describes how individuals tend to monitor the behavior of others around them to determine how to act. The second process is evaluation apprehension, which is the fear of being publicly judged.

The third factor of the bystander effect is the diffusion of responsibility, which means that individuals feel less responsible for taking action the more onlookers there are. Diffusion of responsibility explains the tendency for individuals to subjectively divide the personal responsibility to help by the number of other bystanders present. What this means is that as the size of a bystander group increases, the less each individual feels personally responsible.

Diffusion of responsibility occurs whenever more than one person is present in an emergency situation, and three main ideas explain this bystander effect factor:

  1. The belief that another onlooker from the group will intervene
  2. The blame for not stepping in to help can be shared by the group and not rest solely on one person
  3. The moral obligation falls on the whole group and not just one person

Diffusion of responsibility also occurs when a task is shared between a group of people instead of only one person. One everyday example of diffusion of responsibility that you may have experienced before, such as in a school setting, is when you did not put as much effort into a group project because having other classmates made you feel less responsible.

While it is not ideal that people are less likely to help in a group than when they are alone, at least we know we do not have to attribute it all to “moral decay.” However, it is still important that we are informed of the bystander effect and why diffusion of responsibility occurs so more of us can know how to be an active bystander should an emergency situation ever arise and we are present for it – in a group, that is.

For whatever reason someone fails to respond, the truth is that a bystander’s intervention is usually the only thing that puts an end to that violent encounter. Awareness of the bystander effect is one of the best ways to minimize bullying and violence merely because people become aware of their behavioral and social paralysis in these situations. If you witness something, do not be afraid to speak up and intervene because simply shouting out a warning like “stop” to the attacker can inspire others to act. But if you really want to be an effective bystander, the most important thing you can do is assume that you are the only person taking charge. Delegate responsibility and give other bystanders directions, such as calling 911 – do not ever expect anyone else to be the first to act.

Katelyn Redfoot

Katelyn Redfoot is an independent content writer based in North Carolina who offers ghostwriting, copywriting, blogging, and social media services. As a health and wellness advocate, she loves learning from and helping clients across the world share creative, relatable, and helpful content. Her goal is soon to take her writing on the road, traveling in a van with her fiance, Jason, and their dogs, Max and Summit.


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