ACA Blog

Hope Yancey
Jan 18, 2011

Bystander Effect

A couple of news stories have been on my mind lately. One, of course, is the tragedy in Arizona, currently reviving debate in the media over permissive gun laws and sparking new discussion of the role of political rhetoric, as well as some discussion, to a lesser degree, about access to mental health services. I read accounts that bystanders intervened courageously to bring an end to the attack.

I’ve also been thinking of the woman in England who completed suicide in her apartment on Christmas Day by overdosing on pills. Reports suggest she may have posted her intentions via a status update on her Facebook page. It further appears some of her many Facebook friends saw the post or posts, but it seems most probably did little or nothing to actively intervene. Were they just callous and indifferent, or was something else going on here?

Some of the responses to the news story left on an online message board I read were as disturbing to me as the story itself. To summarize, a number of the reactions could be grouped into the following categories: She’s an adult and can therefore do whatever she wants; her friends had no obligation to help; and people who use Facebook are somehow unworthy of compassion.

I can’t reconcile these reactions to the story, but what of the events themselves? Almost immediately I thought of the bystander effect and wondered if that could begin to offer an explanation, or at least a partial one. In the bystander effect, you recall, no one acts in an emergency situation due to the presence of others, and all assume either that someone else has acted, or that no action need be taken.

Recent research suggests, however, that the forces at work in the bystander effect may be more complex than previously thought. It will be interesting to learn more about this.

With technology playing an ever-expanding role in our lives, I think it is necessary to consider whether a phenomenon like the bystander effect might remain true as much in an online community as in person (or perhaps even more so?), and if so, what implications that may hold.

I recently read the book “Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century” by Lauren Slater. It includes a chapter that serves as a refresher on the bystander effect and the 1964 Kitty Genovese case that brought the issue to the forefront.

Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina

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