The Bystander Effect: Metoo at Work

Abilene Paradox
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Devayani Vyavaharkar
Student (University), Germany

The Bystander Effect: Metoo at Work

🔥NEW Many of us have heard of instances of workplace discrimination or experienced it in person. Also, the number of "MeToo" cases, also at work, continues to grow - globally. Besides the effects on the victims, the legal, financial and reputational consequences for companies in which they took place can also be devastating. Some victims are now willing to talk about their experiences over social media. That's great. But did you ever wonder in all those cases, why nobody actually intervened and stood up against such practices of injustice?

A Typical Case of the Bystander Effect

Consider a female employee who is subject to constant criticism by her male superior during team discussions, while the other, male, members are not. Because her superior is having high contacts, she doesn't report this to HR out for fear of losing her job. In spite of this going on for a long time now, none of her teammates report this to HR.

From this scenario, we are inclined to blame her fellow teammates, i.e., the 'bystanders'. We might conclude that the bystanders failed to act due to their selfishness. But research over a few decades revealed other reasons why people present in larger groups are unlikely to help victims when these are encountering bullying, sexual harassment, racism or are in an emergency situation (e.g., a heart attack) and nobody responds.. This phenomenon is known as the Bystander Effect.

What exactly is the Bystander Effect?

Coined by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968, the phenomenon became prominent after the events surrounding the murder of Kitty Genovese. Although this crime occurred in an area where people saw and heard what was happening, none of the bystanders tried to intervene or report it to the police before it was too late. As The New York Times reported at the time, 38 neighbors in Queens, NY, supposedly watched a killer "stalk and stab" Genovese without calling the police.
Given the popular belief that there's safety in numbers, the presence of multiple bystanders should have increased the probability of the woman being helped. But in reality, it turned out to be the exact opposite. The bystander effect refers to 'the tendency exhibited by individuals to remain inactive in situations involving high risk and danger due to the presence of other bystanders'. It is one form of cognitive bias.

What are the Causes of the Bystander Effect?

Unfortunately, the reasons why the Bystander Effect occurs are a bit complex. Here are the main three:
  1. DIFFUSION OF RESPONSIBILITY: Each bystander assumes that somebody else will take the responsibility to help the victim. They believe that 'the blame for not helping' and 'the moral responsibility to help' falls on every bystander witnessing the incident, not just one individual alone.
  2. PLURALISTIC IGNORANCE: It refers to specific opinions or beliefs held by the minority that are wrongly assumed (by the minority) to be held by the majority. The ambiguous and unpredictable nature of a crisis makes bystanders more dependent on other bystanders to look for cues to respond. Some of the bystanders often refrain from helping the victim, since they wrongly believe that the rest of the bystanders will intervene. Consequently, all bystanders falsely assume that rest of the bystanders will consider assisting the victim, whereas in reality, no real intervention occurs. This is quite similar to the Abilene Paradox.
  3. EVALUATION APPREHENSION: It refers to anxiety over being evaluated and judged by others. Bystanders are reluctant to get involved due to fear of standing out from the crowd (being judged by others) or facing the consequences/danger following their actions. For instance, bystanders may fear humiliation by their superior, or getting a less favorable performance appraisal, or not being promoted, or facing legal inquiries after reporting workplace discrimination. Compare: Whistle Blower

A Model to Overcome the Bystander Effect

The "Decision Model of Helping" proposed by Latané and Darley (1970) can be very helpful here, as it predicts and explains the likelihood of bystanders helping a victim (or not), based on 5 quick decisions they should make when faced with a crisis like a case of MeToo, discrimination, etc. The more these 5 decisions are taken positively, the greater the chance of overcoming the Bystander Effect!
  1. NOTICE THE EMERGENCY/CRISIS – Bystanders are likely to intervene if they are aware of their surroundings, and notice something unusual happening in the first place.
  2. INTERPRET THE EVENT AS AN EMERGENCY – Bystanders might notice an emergency, but may not interpret one correctly. Due to its ambiguous nature, it becomes challenging to understand what exactly is happening. Taking action based on incomplete and limited information may panic the bystander to decide if there is an emergency and could lead to embarrassment (if they respond when there's no real emergency). For instance, team members may neglect workplace harassment against a colleague by assuming that the colleague misunderstood their superior.
  3. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY – Merely interpreting an emergency won't save lives. Bystanders ought to take responsibility and intervene. A single bystander might sense the moral obligation to intervene and help the victim, compared to when there are multiple bystanders (due to diffusion of responsibility). Similarly, bystanders are likely to intervene when the responsibility to help the victim is clear and when they sense a personal connection with the victim.
  4. DECIDE ON HOW TO INTERVENE – If the bystander decides to assume responsibility, helping behaviour will only be possible if one knows how to help. This can be done using the correct knowledge/skill or calling for assistance.
  5. PROVIDE HELP – Although a bystander might decide to intervene and assist the victim, they could still feel restrained by the fear of consequences that follow. The real act of helping the victim only occurs after the bystander understands that the pros outweigh the cons. For instance, in a workplace, standing in support of a victim might stop the injustice inflicted on them, however, it could lead one to face the brunt of the harasser.
We must remember that the decision to help a victim is not an easy one. Rather, it involves a series of 5 decisions that any bystander must make. Only if all five of these decisions are made positively does actual intervention and assistance occur!

Consequences of Bystander Effect for Companies and Managers

💡It is important for managers and organizations to carefully keep an eye on any such behaviors exhibited by their staff or employees. At the same time, be aware of the bystander effect. It is a strong human bias with complex causes that stops people from actually doing anything. Be also aware that the consequences of wrongdoings like the ones mentioned at work for both the victim and the employer can be severe.
❗It is therefore important to raise the awareness among employees and train them to intervene and respond accurately in case they encounter such scenarios at work.

⇨ Do you have any further tips or personal experience with the Bystander Effect? Drop a comment. You can do it anonymously if you prefer!

Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). "Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.
Cherry, K. (2020, February 24). "How Psychology Explains the Bystander Effect", Verywell Mind.
Emeghara, U. (2020, September 24). "Bystander Effect and Diffusion of Responsibility", Simply Psychology



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