Yes, Tyler Curtis, the bystander effect exists

updated 2023-09-29

Tyler Curtis of FEE posted an article arguing that the Bystander Effect is a myth. He is so wrong that I have to debunk him.


I won't discuss whether the story about Kitty Genovese is true, because I don't need it to be. I have experienced the bystander effect myself at the expense of a victim of violent abuse, but I'll make a case independent of that too.

My bystander story

The Bystander Effect is a consequence of simple logic. When a lone human sees a problem and has the power to intervene, they're urged by conscience to do so. But if you see many other people that aren't intervening, you're being shown many examples of "normal" people displaying the opinion that intervention is not appropriate. Unless you have an iron conviction that it is this will make you doubt. Note that intervening is an irrevocable decision in terms of how the other bystanders will see you, but if you wait to intervene, you can ascertain whether the consensus is that you should intervene and if it is you can do so later without being seen as a coward for waiting. Of course, the longer everyone waits, the more everyone gets the impression that the consensus is negative.

One may argue that if support for intervention is hesitant then having more bystanders helps because if any one them intervenes everyone else will get the signal that it's appropriate, and one would be correct. Having more bystanders does not always reduce the likelihood of intervention - it depends on the bystanders and on the type of emergency - but it's completely obvious that each non-intervening bystander makes it harder for other bystanders.

Another type of situation the bystander effect undeniably happens in is if each bystander is making the decision individually - in series - and then leaving the area. An example is people stranded on the side of the road. Most of the time I've seen this, I've also seen dozens of cars driving by because, well, someone else will help that person. Someone else will come along who's got less important things to do than I do. Although that's arguably justified, it is an example of the bystander effect. Most people would be much more likely to help if they knew they'd be the only person passing by for a while, because then they know the consequences of not intervening are more severe.

In situations where the primary motivation to not intervene is the belief that intervening puts oneself in danger (such as if you see someone being assaulted by a stronger person), then there's the opposite effect because having more people that might help you increases the safety of helping.

But that's not what the bystander effect is about. In situations where there's any question at all about the appropriateness of intervention, the bystander effect exists and makes it harder to intervene. If you're the only one who intervenes, you draw potentially negative attention to yourself (this is exactly how my example worked). Few people want to be the *first* to act in that situation.

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