Bystander Effect – Stop being passive and start intervening

by Nov 23, 2021

Bystander Effect – Explained

Learn about the bystander effect so we can stop being passive and start intervening to build  “speak-up” or “call-out” cultures.


Bystander effect

The term bystander effect refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are willing to help a person in distress. In an emergency that requires intervention, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other people around. Being part of a large crowd creates a situation where no single person has to take responsibility for an action (or inaction).

In a series of classic studies, researchers Bibb Latané and John Darley found that the amount of time it takes the participant to take action and seek help varies, depending on how many other observers are in the room.


bystander effect

Main causes

There are two major factors that contribute to the bystander effect.

  • The presence of other people diffuses responsibility. When there are other bystanders, people don’t feel the same pressure to act. The responsibility for intervention is perceived to be shared among all of those present, which leads to action paralysis.
  • When other bystanders fail to respond it creates doubt around everyone’s experience of the incident and leads to doubt. Maybe it’s just me? Am I overreacting? This then becomes develops into a thought that a response is not needed or not appropriate.

Research suggests that bystanders are less likely to intervene if a situation is more ambiguous. Those present might look to each other for cues on the experience of the event and whether it’s inappropriate. When they see general passivity this can be interpreted as a lack of need to take action.



Unfortunately, any time lag between action and inaction can give the situation the time to escalate. We saw this in a recent harassment incident on a London train, when bystanders only intervened when the perpetrator became physically violent. Perhaps they felt that they might also be injured if the incident escalated. It was clear from the outset that the perpetrator was verbally abusive.

This emphasises the importance of early intervention as many of the seemingly minor behaviours we observe every day can be gateway behaviours to more serious acts of abuse. Someone invading someone’s personal space may become sexually aggressive. An obscene sexist joke can turn into verbal abuse.

Every incident no matter how minor needs to be called out and nipped in the bud. We need to build “speak-up” or “call-out” cultures where people can raise concerns without fear of reprisals.


Give a signal

At a recent workshop on combating sexism and harassment in the workplace the group recounted a situation wherein a company meeting a senior member of the organisation was groping a young member of the team under the table. The woman was intimidated and didn’t feel comfortable openly calling it out. She was also afraid of the potential repercussions on her fledgling career.

One thing a target can do if they don’t feel comfortable taking action themselves is to make a sign for help. This is a hand gesture which was proposed by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, to support targets of domestic violence during the lockdown. This is why the instruction is to make the sign to camera. It can be equally effective in an in-person corporate situation. This allows an “ally” to intervene

Like with all the situations there is only one way to deal with men groping.


Men STOP groping!  It is sexual harassment!

📢It’s time to stop being passive and start intervening


Learn how to stage a Bystander Intervention


Further reading:

📢Sexism: How to stage a Bystander Intervention in the Workplace 

📢Why we need to shift from bystander to upstander

Staff Writer: Career Contributor
3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Job Search, Career and Mentoring or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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