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When SOS turns into SO S(ORRY)…

Blog post   •   Apr 16, 2014 06:00 +08


It’s a common enough sight on the crowded buses and trains, especially during peak hour: people with their heads down, eyes firmly on their smartphones or tablets either chatting away with invisible friends far away via WhatsApp or watching as some drama unfolds on their device’s screen.

So what would happen when a commuter suddenly collapses in front of them, or if someone should get robbed or attacked?  Would they step in and intervene, or would they simply lean back and just “watch the show” instead?  More importantly, what would you do if you were there?

American psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane asked themselves this exactly question in 1963 and devised a series of social experiments to find out how people would react in that situation.  As it turned out, the results were quite startling.

Darley and Latane found out that, contrary to popular belief, having a large group of people witnessing an emergency would actually lower the chances of aid being rendered.  That is to say, the more people there are witnessing an accident or emergency situation, the less likely any one of them would step up and help the victim.  

But why?

The psychologists determined that there were three main factors involved in what they started calling the “bystander intervention phenomenon”. 

For starters, the more bystanders there are around, the more the sense of personal responsibility is diffused.  Since there are so many other people around, they think, surely someone else more qualified would intervene!

Secondly, people in crowds always look to other people’s non-verbal behaviour in order to determine what the socially-appropriate response is in any given situation: and this is no less true in an emergency.  If the vast majority of people appeared apprehensive about assisting, the other bystanders would pick up on this apprehension and react in the same way instead of “rocking the boat” and doing something different.

Lastly, bystanders are often worried that they may get into trouble or embarrass themselves by offering to help.  This is especially true in our Asian culture, where we have been taught since young to just keep our heads down and let other people deal with their own business.  Don’t draw attention to ourselves, don’t do anything that will make you stand out, and things will sort themselves out.

Darley and Lantane’s experiments have been studied and replicated several times throughout the world, each time getting the same results: no matter the nature of the emergency, be it crime, terrorism, or a professional crisis at the workplace.  The more bystanders there are to witness an emergency, the less likely any one of them would try to intervene and make a difference.

But all is not lost!  There are many things we can do to prevent the bystander intervention phenomenon from manifesting, the most important being public education.  

The simple fact that you’re aware of this phenomenon, and its associated causes and effects, is often enough for you to overcome it.

People should also be empowered to believe that, no matter what the nature of the emergency is, they will always be able to help; if not directly, then indirectly, by making other people aware of the situation and involved in it. 

 A simple phone call to the appropriate emergency services, made promptly at the onset of an emergency, can often save lives.

Take heed and take charge: be a hero, not a bystander!


Written by: MDIS School of Psychology