What Influences a Bystander's Decision to Help the Victim?

Nov 22, 2021
Domestic Violence Victim and Bystander Actions

Bystander Effect

What hurts the victim the most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.

Many a times we are faced with the dilemma to help someone in need, when people around us are just watching passively. This is called bystander effect or bystander apathy. Reasons for such behavior are multiple, branching out from the sociocultural influences. But mostly the hindrance in reaching out to people in need is the assumption that other people present will help. This effect is dangerous because everyone else is also assuming the exact same thing!

Decision to help someone

According to Latané & Darley (1970) the decision-making process of a bystander to help someone in emergency progresses through the following five stages:

  1. The bystander must notice that something is amiss.
  2. The bystander must define that situation as an emergency.
  3. The bystander must assess how personally responsible they feel.
  4. The bystander must decide how best to offer assistance.
  5. The bystander must act on that decision.

According to a research, the likelihood of people helping in times of emergency is very much related to the number of other bystanders present. The relation can be graphically seen below:

In other words the primary reason why the bystander effect continues to remain in effect is that instead of evaluating the emergency, bystanders are evaluating each other.

 Whatever the reason may be, we need to ask ourselves: ‘Will the consequence of my ignorance put someone’s life at stake?’   

Generally, people come across one of the two situations (at times, both)

Situation 1: Behind the doors

You know your neighbor is in a toxic relationship and every now and then you hear people crying, slamming and being hurt. Here you may be indecisive whether to intervene or not as:

1. Your neighbor might get offended.

In many cases of domestic violence, the victim doesn’t realize the mistreatment and considers it part & parcel of the relation. This dangerous mindset may rather put the whistleblower in a hot spot.


 2. Your neighbor may simply deny the truth on arrival of the cops.

In these scenarios the police usually visit the next day to check if the victim now feels comfortable and safe to speak up. Still if the victim isn’t willing to open up, then records of domestic violence reports of that residency, from bystanders, are taken into account and the matter is escalated depending upon its severity.


3. You are doubtful for your own safety.

Yes, your safety comes first without any second opinion! But when you know the danger/threat to your neighbor is escalating then in such cases you have multiple options:

  1. You may record/ film the whole scenario (if you are in such a position)

  2. You may call 911(because the victim in the middle of a fight isn’t in a position to do so), give your identity and provide all the details about the happenings.
  • You may call anonymously and report the incidence. However, calling anonymously does reduce the credibility of the caller and prevents the cops from getting search warrants.


Situation 2: Out in Public

Quite often we see people resolving their indoor matters, outdoors. But we need to be extra vigilant because there are moments where the situation gets serious and we as bystander may be required to intervene.

What you SHOULD and SHOULDN’T do as a bystander:

  1. If the situation is life threatening and you have little children accompanied, then it’s your prime responsibility to parent first. However, you may still extend help by calling 911 and report the situation.
  2. If you’re alone and not responsible for anyone but you; as a bystander it will be your personal decision to either
    • Call 911, give a detailed description and yell to stop.
    • Physically intervene and try to prevent by using any weapon/tool that you have available, depending upon the severity of assault.
    • Ask help from other bystanders to separate the victim and the abuser.


What does the LAW say?

As per the US law, you may use force to protect yourself or someone else. When to use, where to use and how much to use depends upon the severity of assault and your discretion. 

We all must take this upon us and work towards increasing the ‘bystander intervention’ statistics, because surprisingly bystanders are present in 65% of global violent victimizations that occur.