On March 13 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed in New York outside an apartment building across the street from her home. After her death, it was claimed that 38 witnesses watched her murder and failed to intervene or even contact the police until after the attacker fled. This case led to research which coined the term 'bystander' and identified 'the bystander effect' (Darley, J. M.,Latané, B. (1968). It also motivated a community response, and the first Neighbourhood Watch scheme was set up.
What is the bystander effect?
The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency, against a bully, or during an assault or other crime. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is for any one of them to initiate help for a person in distress. People are more likely to act in a crisis when there are few or no other witnesses present.
Why is it important for bystanders to take some action?
Crimes and harmful behaviours such as public sexual harassment and hate crime are significantly under-reported by the victims. There are a number of reasons for this, but a key factor is the everyday nature of these incidents and the fact that they are ‘deeply ingrained in our culture' Sexual harassment of women and girls in public places (parliament.uk) means that victims experiencing sexual harassment or hate crime regularly often see them as insufficiently serious to report.
However, sexual harassment and hate crime, no matter how ‘serious’ individual incidents might be, pervade the lives of those who experience it relentlessly and these sorts of incidents are often likely to escalate if not addressed.
The pyramid of hate identifies how attitudes and behaviours motivated by hate or bias can escalate from words and exclusion to discrimination, crime, violence and, in some extreme cases, to extermination. It shows how hate can become ‘normalised’ if not challenged or addressed.
In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.
Martin Luther King Jr
Disrupting the escalation early on makes it more difficult for discrimination and hate to flourish and we can dismantle the whole pyramid.
Barriers to being an active bystander
There are several reasons why people don't act to help when they witness crimes or incidents involving violence, intimidation, harassment or hostility:
- They fail to notice the crime or incident – they may be distracted or see things on such a regular basis that they become immune to the incidents happening around them
- They fail to recognise the seriousness of the event
- They fail to take any personal responsibility - assuming that someone else has already called for help or is helping so they don't need to do anything
- They lack the knowledge or competence to offer appropriate help and worry about being judged on their actions
- They are concerned that if they intervene, they could put themselves in danger
- They fear legal consequences
- They lack empathy - it's not happening to them or anyone they care about. This may also be due to unconscious bias - which can make people less likely to help when those in need are perceived as different from them
- They question whether they have the authority to get involved
What do we mean by ‘active bystander’?
An active bystander (or upstander) means being aware of when someone's behaviour is inappropriate or threatening and choosing to intervene and offer assistance.
How can we be active bystanders?
- Don't expect others to be the first to act
If you are with others when you witness a crime, your first instinct, and that of the others around you, might be to not intervene. Once someone helps, then others will join in because a new social norm emerges. Be that person who takes the first step to ensure the victim's safety.
- Take responsibility to do something
If you're in a position to help, tell yourself this is now your responsibility. Don’t be influenced by other people who aren’t doing anything. Try not to worry about the consequences of helping. Remember a lot of cruelty and violence is intra-familial, so don't be put off intervening just because you think the people involved are from the same family. Instead, think about the positive impact you can have and the example you set for those around you.
- Encourage others to get involved
Be an influencer. If you need assistance, ask particular people near you to do specific things. Look them straight in the eyes or single out someone by a distinguishing feature – e.g. blue jumper, glasses, pink face mask - and ask for their help. By directly asking someone, there is a good chance they will feel a shared responsibility and take some action.
- Empathise with the victim
People are more likely to help if they identify with a victim. Try imagining the victim is someone you love and ask yourself what you would like others to do to support them in those circumstances.
- A small act of kindness can make a big difference
Asking "Are you okay?" when it’s safe to do so, lets the victim know that you acknowledge what happened to them was unacceptable. This can be reassuring for the victim.
- Call for support
If it is not safe to intervene, call the police.
The more we show concern for others and become active rather than passive bystanders when we think someone may be at risk, the more likely it is we can help prevent tragedies like the appalling murder of James Bulger. This was a crime that "opened the gates of hell" for the witnesses who saw James being led away, wishing they'd done something to help him for the rest of their lives.