Bystander Effect: If You Need Help, You’d Better Ask For It

This article was originally published on riskology.co

Picture this. You’re out hiking in the wilderness — all alone and miles from civilization. You turn a corner on the trail and come upon a young man in torn clothes, looking disheveled and a little incoherent.

You’re on your way to your campsite, but he clearly needs help. As you approach, he explains he broke his leg, he’s been in the woods for days, and that he’d appreciate it if you could carry him, even just a few meters, to help him get back to the trailhead.

What do you do? Stop and help or ignore him and keep going?

If you’re a half-decent person, I can guess you chose the first option: to stop and help. In fact, you probably even feel it your duty to do so. There’s no one around, you’re the only one who can help, and you don’t want to feel responsible for what happens if you don’t.

So, not only do you help, you probably cancel your plans and help carry the guy all the way back. You don’t even think twice about it.

Now, picture this.

You’re dressed up and walking downtown to your first day at a new job. You’re not late, but you’re hurrying to get there a little early. Everyone’s out for their morning commute just like you, and you’re weaving your way through crowds on your way to the office.

Halfway there, you see a homeless man holding a sign: “Down on my luck. Need $ for food. Anything helps.”

Do you stop to give him your change, or do you continue to work?

If you’re anything like me, you probably tell yourself as you read this that you’d stop, but the reality is you don’t. And you can probably point to many times in your life — perhaps in just the last few days if you live in a big city — when you kept going rather than stopped to help.

What you’ve fallen victim to is called the Bystander Effect, and it doesn’t just keep you — a kind and caring person — from doing the right thing, it keeps others from helping you when you’re in need. Keep reading to learn how to overcome this strange psychological phenomenon so you won’t just be prepared to help others in need, but you’ll ensure you get the help you need in trying times.

Bystander Effect: Someone Else’s Problem

When you were a child, and you wanted to do something because all your friends were, your mother might have asked, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too?”

The goal was to get you to think carefully about your decisions and not to let your friends influence you to do dumb things you’d later regret. You knew it was the goal, so you responded to Mom with, “No, of course not.”

But the truth is — unless you’re paying very close attention to yourself at all times — you probably would jump right off that bridge.

This has been proven over and over through psychological research. In order to fit in with the people around you, you’ll modify your behavior to match whatever it is the group is doing. This is why you act a certain way with your friends, but a different way with your family. It’s why you behave one way at work, but another way at home.

This is fine when it helps you build closer relationships and get along with those around you, but it can also go very, very wrong. Walking right past a homeless person who desperately needs your help is just one example.

This is called The Bystander Effect. When you’re alone and see a problem, you feel it’s your job to fix it. After all, there’s no one else around who’s going to do it. But when you’re in a big group of people, you’re not the only one who’s capable of helping, so the situation doesn’t seem so dire.

Psychologists call this the diffusion of responsibility. You figure, “Hey, I’m in a hurry and there are lots of people around. Whatever problem that needs to be solved — the homeless guy who needs food, the litter in the park, the lost puppy wandering around, etc. — will get taken care of… by someone else.”

It’s a logical thought. The problem is everyone else is thinking the same thing. They’re also in a hurry and assuming you’ll help.

The Bystander Effect gets worse. As you walk by the problem without giving it much attention, everyone around you does the same. They begin to think there’s no problem at all. After all, if something was wrong, others would be drawing attention to it, wouldn’t they?

This is how problems — many that effect your own life every single day — get avoided.

Defeating Bystander Effect: Fixing The World And Improving Your Own Life

When you ask someone, “Would you walk right past someone who is clearly in need?” it would be the rare person to say they would. Everyone assumes they’ll do the right thing when the situation calls for it, but The Bystander Effect keeps us from seeing when the situation does, in fact, call for it.

And if you’re thinking, “That’s all too bad, but none of this actually affects me,” think again.

The Bystander Effect, every single day, keeps you from getting the help you need at home, at work, when you’re traveling, everywhere. Remember: we all modify our behavior to fit in with those around us.

  1. If you feel like you need/deserve a raise at work, but you don’t see any of your co-workers asking for one, you’re less likely to ask for one yourself. Meanwhile, your co-workers are all watching you not ask for a raise and doing the same.
  2. If you want to learn to do something, but all your friends seem to already know how to do it, you’re less likely to ask for help because they’re not asking for help. Of course, they could all be looking at you thinking the same thing.
  3. Maybe there’s something wrong in one of your relationships, but The Bystander Effect is keeping you from talking about it because you don’t see the other person making a big deal of it. All the while, they’re waiting for you to say something.

If the problem with The Bystander Effect is as simple as looking to others to solve a problem, the solution is just as easy and just the opposite.

Fixing the things you see wrong in the world, including your own problems at home, at work, or wherever you are, is taking complete personal responsibility for them.

Rather than looking to others around you to see and solve a problem — you have to judge things by your own moral compass. If you see something that looks wrong, but no one is doing anything about it, you have to take it upon yourself to.

The fear, of course, is that no one else sees the problem and you’ll be left alone to deal with it. But the nature of The Bystander Effect says exactly the opposite: everyone sees it, and they’re all waiting for you to do something about it.

Once you do, you call attention to the problem, and others start to feel compelled to help, too.

This applies to problems in your own life as much as it does to problems in others’. Thanks to The Bystander Effect, others may see you need help, they won’t jump in until they feel it’s their personal responsibility to do so — that if they don’t do something, no one else will.

If you need help, you have to reach out to someone who can help you and specifically ask them for it.

  1. If you’re lost in a big, foreign city, looking at your map with confused expressions won’t help. Walk up to someone and ask for directions.
  2. If you need a raise at work, hinting that you’re behind on your mortgage is not going to get you the money you need. You have to schedule a meeting with your boss to talk about compensation.
  3. If you’re lying on the sidewalk bleeding, you can’t expect the hundreds of people around you to immediately come to your aid. You have to point to someone and say, “You! I need your help.”

Remember that homeless guy with the sign you passed by the other day? The guy everyone else around you walked by, too? How would you have behaved differently if he’d grabbed you by the arm and said, “Hey man, I’m going to die by tomorrow if I don’t get some food. Can you help me?”


Tyler Tervooren founded Riskology.co, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.

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