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Bystander Effect - How might we encourage students to stand up and speak up?

The term bystander effect refers to the phenomenon in which greater the number of people present, the less likely they are to help a person in distress. When an emergency occurs, observers are more inclined to take action if there are few or no other witnesses. Being part of a large crowd makes it so no single person has to take responsibility for an action (or inaction).

According to Catherine A Sanderson, a psychology professor at Amherst College in Massachusetts and the author of The Bystander Effect, myriad complex factors make some of us bystanders and some of us heroes. These range from our self-identity to the pressure of social norms.


​The way I see it - Bystanders are not only the people who don't call for help or silently watch someone get bullied, they are also those who let mean, sexist or racist comments off the hook. These people give in to social norms or the unwritten rules that guide and shape your behaviour. Therefore, teaching students how to empathize, take a stand and speak up from an early age is extremely pertinent. 


​While I was thinking of how I could teach 11-12 year-olds to speak up. I wanted to know how we can all speak out, whether it is about bullies or someone just teasing somebody. Education. Sensitization. 


In a study by Michael Tomasello and colleagues, it was concluded that young children also show the bystander effect, and it is due not to social referencing or shyness to act in front of others but, rather, to a sense of a diffusion of responsibility. 


Two major factors contribute to the bystander effect.


First, the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of those present. Many of us might avoid speaking out for fear that we’ve misjudged a situation – if it really was that bad, wouldn’t others be speaking up, too? This is called "evaluation apprehension". 


The second reason is the need to behave in correct and socially acceptable ways. When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate. Other researchers have found that onlookers are less likely to intervene if the situation is ambiguous. 


Characteristics of the situation can play a role. During a crisis, things are often chaotic and the situation is not always crystal clear. Onlookers might wonder exactly what is happening. During such chaotic moments, people often look to others in the group to determine what is appropriate. When people look at the crowd and see that no one else is reacting, it sends a signal that perhaps no action is needed. 


Pluralistic ignorance - The situation in which people privately feel one thing but wrongly assumed that others are thinking something different. This happens because we assume others’ behaviour reflects what they are actually thinking and feeling even though we understand our own behaviour does not. 


Sanderson notes that people find it easier to intervene if they are less concerned about fitting in, yet also notes that those who are worried about fitting in feel social ostracisation more strongly. Higher self-esteem - people tend to help out. Neuroscience shows that for these people, rejection feels like physical pain – “as if you’ve twisted your ankle or burned yourself with coffee”. We’re concerned we’ll look stupid or sensitive or strange if we speak out. 

This is also how we start normalising apathy from a very young age. Bad and inappropriate behaviour should not be normalised.


In her book, Sanderson writes - In 2012, academics from Harvard asked people to take a maths test and offered them $1 for every correct answer. The twist? Participants scored themselves. The study’s participants were divided into groups that included those who signed an honesty declaration at the end of the test after they’d written down their score; and those who signed a declaration at the top of the sheet before scoring themselves.


In the end, 79% of people who signed their name at the bottom of the page created by inflating their score, compared to only 37% of those who signed their name before scoring themselves. “When we are reminded of who we are – which signing our name surely does – we are also reminded of our intentions to be a good person who does the right thing,” Sanderson writes.

Now, how can we develop a sense of responsibility in students and help them understand the importance of standing up for what they believe in.

Activity -  Bystander Activity

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© Aishwarya Jare