Monday, March 16, 2009

The Bystander Non-Intervention Theory

When I was a student at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, in the year 2001, one day I was on my way to class at eight thirty in the morning. I had a small presentation to make that day, so after preparing late into the night, I got up early in the morning, had a prolonged bath, put on my best ironed clothes, had a bite of breakfast and was on my way. It was then it happened. I felt a sharp object penetrate into my flesh somewhere at the back near my spine at waist height where I was wearing my belt to keep my trousers in place. Instinct told me I had been stabbed by a knife. It must have taken a fraction of a second as I “slowly” wheeled around to face my attacker, hitting out blindly with my students’ rucksack that had a couple of heavy bricklike paper dictionaries in it. My attacker, stunned by this sudden blow, crouched low and prepared to spring straight at my throat, and at the same time I realized that my assailant was a huge stray dog that was drooling with saliva and baying for my blood. The knife had been dog fangs. Mortified with fear, I held out my bag as a shield to protect my Adams apple that the beast was aiming for. Meanwhile, I was screaming for help at the top of my lungs, clutching my bag in front of me with all my strength, and aiming hard kicks at the rabid brute with my leather shoes. In JNU most students used to wear chappals or rubber flipflops/ sandals. I used to do the same, but on that day I had my prized shoes on because it was a “special” day and I have never thanked God any less for the coincidence of me wearing the sturdy leather shoes that was such a great weapon compared to bare skin as for saving my life. Scared to death, my kicks luckily found their target more often than not and once I managed to deal a smashing blow right below the chin of the animal (the sound of the crack of bone confirmed that the right spot had been hit). That made it yelp in pain and widened the distance between us enough for me to make my escape. I must have broken the Olympic hundred meters record that day as I rushed back through the gates of my dormitory. Unfortunately, people do not get gold medals for running for their lives.

The incident happened on a clear patch of land surrounded by the in-campus residences of professors teaching at this famous university. It was a short cut way for students just outside the gate of the students’ dormitory. I was in the clearing being attacked by that dog and shouting for help as the professors and their families watched me through their windows. I heard something like: “The dog is mad. Hit it! Hit it!” That was all! None of them came out with a stick in hand to help me as the dog took away chunks of my flesh and meat from exposed areas. If only someone had come out running with a stick, the dog might have been scared away. But it did not happen. “The anonymity and alienation of big city life makes people hard and unfeeling.”[1] We are talking of the families and professors, the educated elite, of one of the best universities in India. We are also talking about India, the country that produces the largest number of movies in Bollywood, that show individual heroes fighting twenty armed men single handed and bare fisted and winning it! An on screen hero can win with a colt revolver against a battery of semi-automatic light machine guns. Unfortunately, life is not a movie and no hero was there to save me except my own clean pair of heels.

Later, when I went to the medical clinic inside the campus with my roommate after shocking him out of his sleep, I learnt that I was the last of fourteen people who had been bitten by the dog since early that morning.

Psychologists call this the bystander effect/ problem. Wikipedia defines that the bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer to help in an emergency situation when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.[2]

This is not unique of India as some of the following cases will show. What produces this effect? One of the reasons certainly is fear. No one wants to be in the same position as the suffering victim. No one wants to be hurt in the process of trying to save someone else, especially if it is a stranger one does not know. It could be about ‘saving face’. No one wants to look foolish in front of other people while trying to attempt helping another person in front of others. “They may also be afraid of being superseded by a superior helper, offering unwanted assistance, or facing the legal consequences of offering inferior and possibly dangerous assistance.”[3] People are also afraid of being involved in embarrassing legal situations with the police or having to face liability lawsuits. This is as true in the United States as in Japan and India. An individual seeing the inaction of others may judge the circumstances as less serious than s/he would if s/he is alone. There is also diffusion of responsibility. When many people are around that could make an individual less liable to act. These are the theories behind the problem.

Yet both Hollywood and Bollywood make so many movies of heroes who save thousands of lives. And actually, there are thousands of people who even sacrifice their lives to save people in distress in real life. They are the exceptions rather than the rule and that is why governments of nations have honors and medals for such acts of bravery. Such people show unique calmness and exemplary heroism in crisis, and are a rare species that exist probably in all countries in varying numbers. The president of India honors children and adults for acts of bravery on January 26th every year celebrated as Republic Day in India. School books teach us stories of valor and how to help people in need. In India there is a local proverb which means that a person who allows a crime to happen in front of his eyes is as much a sinner as the person who actually did the misdeed. We are taught that it is bad and cowardly not to help someone in need. But how many people actually do that? Many do and many don’t is the right answer. Some people take initiative and a lot don’t. And many dither and in that time of indecision, the incident is over. The situation in this case could have been different if fellow students had been there to help me. No sooner had the news of the dog attack spread in my dormitory than a group of students armed with sticks rushed out in search of the dog to prevent any more casualties. And there were none after that.

Given below are various cases taken from different sources that show this kind of apathy. And the argument here is that, such behavior could be partly overcome with training and reform of the education system. The ambiguity in bystander apathy lies in the judgment and interpretation of the situation, i.e. whether the bystander perceives it as an emergency enough to take law into his own hands and act, or not.

Jesse Sokolovsky’s case, Cultural Clash on the Kyoto Subway, is a typical example of this kind of apathy which is what the bystander effect is about. [4]This happened in Kyoto, Japan, while three Americans Tom, Dick and Harry were boarding a subway train. Dick and Harry got on the train ahead of Tom, and Tom tried to board a different car where it seemed likely that he would get a seat. But he slipped and his leg got stuck in the gap between the train and the platform. Speechless with panic, he looked around for help. People just stared at Tom as he struggled to free his leg and just about managed to board the train before the doors closed. Tom could have been in serious trouble if the train started moving with his leg still stuck. In the book, the author and the discussants have analyzed the case from a cultural point of view and about the technicalities of ‘fool-proof’ safety of the subway system in Japan. In the absence of statistical data, it is difficult to analyze this case in technical detail and cultural allusions alone may not be the formula for an answer to the problem. Nevertheless, it is another typical case that portrays the bystander problem, which may or may not have to do with the difference between individualism and collectivism. (We will come to this later).

The Genovese effect started serious research on this issue. Kitty Genovese, a young woman, was stabbed to death in 1964, in the middle of a street in a residential section of New York City. It was originally reported that 38 people witnessed the incident but failed to raise alarm. Newspapers at that time claimed that the US of A had become a cold and uncaring society. Decades later, it was claimed that those newspaper reports had been exaggerated, there were fewer than 38 witnesses and police had been contacted during the attack.[5] It was also presumptuous to assume that the entire nation had become cold and indifferent when the incident occurred in New York.

The time factor or the duration of the incident is important. The Genovese case involved thirty minutes. But though no one measured the time period of the Kyoto case or the case of dog bite, we can safely say that they were short duration cases. The dog attack must have happened within a minute’s time though time seemed to stand still and it looked like five minutes. In Japan, train doors usually open and shut within a few seconds though the station staff and conductor wait to make sure that all people have boarded and no one is near the doors before shutting the doors. This often makes for extra seconds or even a minute before the doors are shut. The trains are made in a way that they will not move unless the doors are properly shut. The time factor determines whether a response from the bystander can be elicited or not. There are those who react instantly to situations, but most of the people are actually taking time to make up their minds. This is what creates the time lag in a response though by and large most of the bystanders are mentally concerned and affected by the incident. Darley and Latane wrote in their paper about their experiment, ‘Subjects who failed to report the emergency showed few signs of the apathy and indifference thought to characterize “unresponsive bystanders.”’ (p. 381-382). Even the participants who did not report the emergency were nervous and asked about the welfare of the victim when the experimenter returned to the room to diffuse the situation.

The danger levels of the cases are different. In the stabbing incident, bystanders were in danger of being harmed if they tried to get directly involved. The Kyoto case has no direct danger to the onlookers. Tom was in grave personal danger of ending up as a cripple for the rest of his life. The dog could have killed if it got to the throat. But there was the bag as a shield and the people watching the scene could have thought that a young man could keep a dog in check. There was a chance of the dog biting people coming out to help, but if they came armed with sticks and in large numbers, there was a chance of it being scared off too. Personal danger is high in all the three cases but bystander danger has different levels in the three different cases respectively. Also, fear is the added element for bystanders in the Genovese and dog bite case, whereas, apathy and reluctance to get involved in an incident concerning a foreigner that could bring up unpleasant legal formalities is predominant in the Kyoto case. The Genovese case and Kyoto case have high legal risks in terms of possibility, while the dog bite case is low on that aspect. But in all the cases raising an alarm would have helped even if no one got personally involved.

The fear factor is important both in the case of the victim and the bystanders. Optimum arousal occurs when the heart beat rate of an individual is between 115 to 145 beats per minute. Sportsmen have been reported to have a heartbeat at the top of this range when performing at their best. After 145, complex motor skills tend to break down, and after 175 there is absolute breakdown of cognitive processing. [6]

Little research on the gender factor has been done regarding the bystander problem. As males and females are brought up in fundamentally different ways in most countries, their reactions under stress could be different. This is not made clear by the few experiments that have been done and needs further exploration. Also, in predominantly male societies, men may be expected to take the initiative in emergency situations. This also requires much debate and deliberation. Size of a person, skin color, gender, etc. do play a part, big or small, though there is a tendency to deny it as obsoletes in this ‘modern’ age.

In developed countries, the matter is sometimes best left to specialists in some rare instances. I was staying in an apartment in Japan. One summer evening I was having tea in my room with the window open to tempt in some breeze, when there was a sudden squealing of tires, the loud sound of a bump and a woman’s voice shrieking like crazy. I rushed out into my verandah and found that a small boy had been hit by a car on the road outside. The mother was screaming over her child and hurling abuses at the driver of the car, and the driver visibly shaken, was trying to make a phone call with his mobile phone and asking the mother not to touch the child. A Japanese young man had stopped his bicycle and was voluntarily guiding oncoming vehicles out of the way. A doctor from a clinic down the street soon reached the spot and was giving first aid. It was twenty minutes before the ambulance arrived and a few more before the police reached the spot. Onlookers had gathered around but no one tried to meddle. As the medical staff told later, that had been a good thing because in case of head injuries, moving the victim could sometimes be fatal. It also shows the presence of mind of the driver of the car that hit the child, who kept the panic stricken mother from moving her child in any way. Some elderly people living in the vicinity helped clean up the spot after the police had finished their investigations.

Highlights of this case:

・ Not moving the child had been important. Any “help” in that direction could have been dangerous.
・ The child was hit when the mother and the child were trying to cross a road from behind a bus that had stopped at the bus stop. Why was the mother not holding the hand of her child while crossing the road right in the middle when the signal was green for vehicles?
・ Too many cooks spoil the broth. One person was enough to control the traffic. Someone had the brainwave to fetch the doctor at the local clinic nearby. Someone had informed the ambulance and police. Other helpers would have been redundant and only an obstacle.
・ Even in a country like Japan, with hospitals quite near to that area, it took twenty minutes before an ambulance arrived. What are the logistical problems?
・ The ambulance staffs were expert in putting the child on the stretcher without moving his head. This was a specialists’ job.
・ Elderly neighbors cleaned up the spot rather than wait for the municipal authorities to do it. The police had done their job and given them permission. Waiting for the municipality would only have obstructed traffic for a longer period and lead to more chaos.
・ Unlike the Kyoto case and the dog bite case, there was time for bystanders to react. They had a full twenty minutes to take initiatives before the ambulance finally arrived.
・ There were the unconcerned too, who did not have the time to stop and provide moral support, or just hurried out of the spot to avoid getting involved. It did not matter in this case.


In case of split second incidents, one person taking the initiative could change the whole scenario. Hollywood and Bollywood serve a purpose too. The positive side is that they give hope over despair and ambition to some people to do things differently and try and save people from threatening situations. Prior training and education can help people react better to emergency situations as is evident from the positive results obtained from earthquake training or disaster drills.[7] As Professor Yamaoka, a specialist on earthquakes at Nagoya University said, a severe earthquake is an emergency situation that happens only once in several decades or a hundred years. So the experience being passed on through generations or the lack of it is not the main factor. But mental preparation and participation in actual drills could make the situation much more manageable. During the Kobe earthquake many people helped others. Similarly, creating more awareness and an education system that trains response to emergency situations is important in solving the problem of bystander apathy.

We have discussed the following causes of the bystander effect, like diffusion of responsibility, pluralistic ignorance/ ambiguity in an unfamiliar situation when people tend to look out to others for instruction and often mimic their inaction, and, the fear of blunder in front of a large crowd. There are other factors like social appropriateness/ privacy (as in case of hostilities between married or unmarried couples; people including the police usually do not interfere unless asked to), blind faith in a system as in Japan where everything goes smoothly in order (the train will not move and the authorities are certain to do something about it; the factor of human error is forgotten), misinterpretation of the Genovese case (a. exaggeration of initial reporting; and b. social factors like the feminist critique of male violence was yet to be established), erroneous interpretation of the situation by the bystanders, etc.

Stereotypes, especially in the media, magnify this problem. The New York incident drew news columns that talked of a cold and indifferent nation. When it happens in Japan, people tend to view it as a problem of ‘instruction awaiting Japanese’. One case of dowry or wife torture in India is enough to condemn the entire population and make foreigners think of India as just another backward country.

The bystander effect should not be categorized as a clash between individualism and collectivism as this problem has existed in both individualistic and collectivistic societies. In a globalizing world, there is lot of overlapping of both individualistic tendencies and collectivistic traits in the same nation, society or individual. Such societies are too complicated to be simply classified as one or the other. It is mostly a big city problem though rare cases may exist in smaller towns. The circumstances and causes could be very different from that of big cities. Uncontrollable fear, vulnerability and inability to make decisions are part of the problem. Awareness is the solution. This is a social problem and more versatile research is needed by manipulating social influence as suggested in the abstract of The Bystander Effect and the Passive Confederate: On the Interaction Between Theory and Method by Joseph W. Critelli and Kathy W. Keith.

The bystander effect can be avoided. The following information from BBC is relevant.[8]

Notice something is happening.
Interpret the situation as an emergency.
Assume personal responsibility.
Choose a form of assistance.
Implement assistance.

To avoid being a victim of the bystander effect:
1. Talk to people directly.
2. Make eye contact.
3. If possible, use people's names; if not, point.
4. Tell exactly which people to do what.
5. Do not yell indiscreetly for help but do let people know that it is an emergency situation.

Experts in various cultures could modify these rules keeping the local culture in mind to make them even more effective in that particular culture. And above all, it requires awareness and training not only to be able to take the initiative to act in an emergency situation but to be able to overcome ones panic and be able to point a finger at someone and shout for help (which is easier said than done).


1. Darley & Latane 1968 Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 4, 377-383.
2. Levine, Dr. Mark Rethinking Bystander Non-Intervention

[1] Gladwell, Malcolm 2000 The Tipping Point. p. 27
[2] Wikipedia: (Aronson, E., Akert, R. D., and Wilson, T. D. (2006). Social psychology (6th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall).
[3] Wikipedia: Social psychology research.
[4] Sokolovsky, Jesse 2005 Cultural Clash on the Kyoto Subway, ‘Different Cultures Different Interpretations – Incidents and Reflections with Focus on Japan,’ Edited by James Lassegard, Rajdeep Seth, Jesse Sokolovsky, Kayoko Takagi, Kyoko Tanaka, Nagoya University. p. 17
[6] Gladwell, Malcolm 2005 Blink p. 229-231.
[7] How to Survive a Disaster,9171,1810315,00.html

1 comment:

  1. A great article which once again brings forth the classic "Indian mentality".....atleast that of a majority of Indians. No wonder that this once great country has been reduced to her present status and has seen one conqueror after another in her last 1000 years.