This past winter was a cold one, and if recent climate science is right, winters may get colder. Cold temperatures can make it a dangerous time of year. People who are often in need of help, like the homeless, are likely to need extra assistance just staying warm and dry and even more independent people face situations that can become serious very quickly, like:
- Difficulty starting a car
- Getting their car stuck in snow
- Slipping and falling on ice
- Losing electricity or heating in their house
The good news about many of these seasonal challenges is that they can be overcome with a little help. The bad news is that sometimes that help doesn’t come as quickly as it could – or at all – even in situations where there are plenty of people around to offer their support. Often that is because of something called the “bystander effect.”
What is the Bystander Effect?
Social psychology describes the bystander effect as people’s tendency not to help someone in an emergency situation if there are other people around, or if we believe that other people can help. We like to think of ourselves as being helpful in emergency situations, but research has shown that many people tend to move along if there are other people present that we think will help first.
There are several different factors that are believed to make the bystander effect occur, such as:
- Unfamiliarity with the Environment – Bystanders who know the area are believed to be more likely to help because they know where to find help and what to do than someone who’s new to that place.
- Diffusion of Responsibility – If the bystander is the only other person around or clearly the only person with the ability to help, they’re more likely to help. If not, they tend to assume someone else or someone more skilled will do so.
- Ambiguous Situations – Sometimes the person who needs help isn’t sure themselves what help they need and doesn’t act in a way the bystander expects a person who really needs help to act. In those cases, the bystander is more likely to move on without helping.
These are only a few of the issues at hand. Sometimes, people will just not want to be the one to take the leap, believing or hoping that someone else will.
There’s not really a way to keep everyone from falling into being the unhelpful bystander occasionally, but just being aware of the tendency can make it more likely that the next person who needs help in public can get what they need.
What if You Want to Overcome the Bystander Effect?
Part of living a fulfilling life is knowing you’ve helped people that need it. Sometimes, that means overcoming the bystander effect. Some things that you could do combat the bystander effect include:
- Be observant and alert
- Be skilled
- Connect socially with others
- Remember the guilt of not helping
Even being helpful to others in non-emergency situations can familiarize you with that behavior, making you more likely to help when it’s needed even more. Especially if you have a relevant skillset and it’s safe for you to help, don’t wait for others to do it first. Overcoming the bystander effect is a win-win for you and the person in need.