What is an active bystander?
You may have heard of the term ‘bystander’ before, but what does being an “active bystander” mean?
Being an active bystander means seeing a situation unfolding and doing something about it. Taking action. Not just standing by. It means effectively (and safely) intervening when you see someone looking uncomfortable or if they’re in danger.
The opposite of an active bystander means seeing a situation unfold and doing nothing about it when you can. An inactive bystander or witness, if you will. And being inactive is more common than you’d think.
A term known as the ‘bystander effect’ was coined to describe this very social phenomenon.
What is the bystander effect?
The term ‘bystander effect’ came about after the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City, 1964.
Kitty was a 28 year-old woman working at a bar in Queens. One night after a shift, a man named Winston Moseley followed her outside her apartment and stabbed her 14 times. After walking away and leaving Kitty for dead, Moseley came back and stabbed her several more times until she died, after no one came to her aid.
Reportedly, 38 of her neighbours witnessed the attack, hearing her cries for help (the number has been debated in subsequent years) but failed to step in and help her.
After this tragic incident, social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley popularized the term ‘bystander effect’ that describes situations just like this.
Why do we do this?
There are two major causes of the bystander effect.
The first is due to a diffusion of responsibility. This means that, in the presence of many other people, there is no pressure for any one person to respond. When there are many witnesses, individuals don’t feel the responsibility to act, since the responsibility is thought to be shared among all of the witnesses present.
The second reason is due to social influence and conformity. As individuals, we monitor the behaviour of those around us to determine how to act because of the need to behave in socially acceptable ways. This can mean that when other witnesses fail to react, individuals take this as a signal that a response is not needed.
As a functioning society, we have a responsibility to take care of each other. This starts at an individual level with separate people standing up and speaking out for their fellow human beings.
But, it’s important to have the skills to be able to safely intervene. You now know what being an active bystander is, you just need to know what to do if you ever find yourself in that situation.
What can I do to be an active bystander?
If you see someone being harassed, and you feel safe to do so, step in and offer assistance. This is especially important when the person in danger is part of an oppressed or minority groups including, women, transgender and gender non-conforming individuals and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Taking action can look like many things. It could mean:
- Calling police
- Saying something to the perpetrator to diffuse the situation
- Showing the perpetrator that you’re there and watching what’s going on
- Saying something to the people beside you about what you’re seeing (loud enough for the assailant to hear)
- Pretending that you know the person being harassed or starting a conversation with them so they’re not alone.
From big things to smaller things, showing solidarity with the person experiencing harassment makes all the difference.
Author Madeline Storey is the Communications Coordinator at White Ribbon Australia.