Follow the leader

The science behind the bystander effect and why humans mimic each other

January 8, 2018

Screams and laughter fill the air of the corridor as a crowd of students forms around to witness the big event. Smartphones whip out of pockets to record what takes place. Gaukers stand in complete stillness, watching and waiting to see if anyone will make the first move in stopping the fight in front of them.

But no one does.

No one speaks up.

Nothing happens.

Time freezes in that moment as the fight continues.

This is what is called the bystander effect.

“I think everyone is so shocked by what is going on, they are frozen and don’t know how to step in to help the situation,” senior Ronin Hackworth said of the psychological phenomenon.

The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, according to Psychology Today.

Documentation of the first bystander effect occurrence dates back to March 16, 1964 in Queens, New York when Catherine “Kitty” Genovese died outside of her apartment building while 38 citizens watched her get stalked and stabbed in three separate attacks. The police were finally called after she had died, according to the article written in the New York Times. This was later proven to be falsely reported information, and calls to the police were made while others tried to intervene with no such luck.

The Bystander Effect

Around for many years, the phenomenon has only become worse as the younger generation plays follow the leader.

“I thought it was crazy that our school had four fights in one day,” freshman Rose Casto said about a string of fights that occurred November 21. “I’m not sure that I would step in to stop a fight, because I am afraid that I would have gotten hurt, but I think it’s immature for people to just watch a record the fights instead of trying to help stop them from fighting.”

Just this semester, seven fights have taken place at the school. Out of these fights no students have stepped in and tried to break them up.

“The school is out of control and there is not enough help,” custodian Kevin Smith said.

“I didn’t know what I actually thought about the situation at the time, but I saw the kids gathering around in the hallway after lunch, and the anticipation of the fight, and my first instinct was to go out there and break it up.”

The Helper Effect

People tend to become bystanders in large groups, a trait called the diffusion of responsibility. Individuals do not feel the responsibility to step up and help in the presence of other people, because they believe someone else will.

“When there is a fight, people just stand around and watch it, especially with bullying, people don’t step in and try to stop anything,” Smith said. “Students do not want to involve themselves in any of the stuff that is going in the fights.” 

 “When there is a fight, people just stand around and watch it, especially with bullying, people don’t step in and try to stop anything,” Smith said. “Students do not want to involve themselves in any of the stuff that is going in the fights.” 

— Kevin Smith

This leads to another physcological phenomenon called the helper effect. It is basically the opposite of the bystander effect and occurs when someone steps in to help someone in an emergency situation, and more people follow suit.

“I think people should have not just stood around watching the fight,” junior Bethany Plennert said about a particularly well known fight that occurred by the cafeteria on December 1.

“They should have stepped in and helped break up the fight. I think that people are just afraid to step in and help because people have gotten in trouble in the past for stepping into other people’s fights.”

Bystander Prevention

According to Stop Bullying, an official website of the United States government, there are four main ways to prevent  bullying: 1) help kids understand bullying, 2) keep the lines of communication open, 3) encourage kids to do what they love and 4) model how to treat others.

“Empowering students to be active bystanders is part of our approach, but not all students (or adults, for that matter) are assertive enough to speak up in a group of their peers,” student support specialist Judy Brune said. “Another option is for students to shift their attention to the target and support that person by either redirecting them away from the bullying situation or connecting with him or her privately to offer support.”

Another reason for the bystander effect could be influenced by popularity or humor. Recently, an account from instagram called “Fights_of_stocktucky” was deactivated, which included many of recent fights in the school. Videos were anonymously sent to the user and then posted to the page, which gained many followers and likes.

A study published by Psychological Science, a journal for the Association for Psychological Science, found that people feel the urge to mimic others when they have the same end goal.
This helps explain why people undergo the bystander and helper effects. Those who want to help in an emergency situation follow others who want to help the situation, and those who do not want to intervene become bystanders.
One main cause for the vast amount of fights that have broken out is said to be social media and teen’s online presence.
“People are always concerned with their presences on the internet,” psychology teacher Pam Gower said. “They try capturing live action that is violent or funny or interesting in a viorisitc or disgusting way that someone can post that, so they can gain followers that will give them attention. I also think people do it because they are used to watching reality happen through a TV, so they feel like they are removed from the situation.”
Gower, concerned that this behavior will lead to more dangerous behavior for students in the future, thinks that the bullying could be handled in a safer way.
“I feel like we need a lot swifter consequences for when fights and things happen, because over the years, I have seen things handled in ways that I think are dangerous,” Gower said. “I want kids to have consequences like suspensions or involve the police, not because I want to get them in trouble, but because I am worried that when they become adults, they will do these things and think that they can get away from them. They might end up in jail or fired from their job and think that this behavior is totally normal.”


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