Doing the Right Thing- the Bystander Effect and Personal Responsibility

The older I get, the more bothered I have become by the realization that there are many people who would rather look the other way, than do the right thing.
The revelations in 2011 about Sandusky and Penn State are prime example of this.
It is alarming to me how many people are afraid to make waves, who don’t want to get involved, or do not want to be the one to call attention to a problem in part because the problem happens to involve a well respected member of the community.
I have encountered many examples of this in my practice; stories of people being harmed and/or injustices being allowed to continue, because no one was brave enough to call a spade a spade and let the chips fall where they may.

In social psychology there is a concept called the Bystander Effect, in which the likelihood of someone responding to a situation decreases as the number of people witnessing the situation increases.

This diffusion of responsibility that happens when more than one person witnesses the same injustice on the one hand is somewhat understandable (people seem to think someone else will deal with the problem, or if others are not reacting they shouldn’t either) but at the same time baffling and disturbing.  It seems counterintuitive to think the more people are available to help another human being when they need it, the less likely that person is to actually be helped.  How sad for all of us who may need help.

I like to think there are many people who do not respond this way.  But I have been shocked at how often I have been wrong about this, even when people are in positions of authority, even when people are acting in a professional capacity and are charged with the task of helping.  Sometimes these situations are complex and the solutions are not clear or easy.

My hope is that situations like Penn State act as a wake up call to all of us to ensure that the right thing is done or that we continue to try to find the right thing to do, rather than look away and say to ourselves it is not our responsibility.  I’d like to live in a world where we all believe it is everyone’s responsibility to protect each other, particularly those who cannot as easily protect themselves.

2 Comments
  1. Tiko Glossum

    I completely agree. So sad what we’ve come to as a result of the ever growing need for social approval. Individually, many of the people may have desired to do something. Due to the threat of social judgement for taking an abnormal action, those same people think twice and decide against their initial instinct.
    It is assumed that if nobody else is getting involved then there must be some reason for it, and nobody wants to be the one to get their hands dirty.
    What is it when people look to strangers for cues as to how they should behave, instead of using internal values as a moral compass.
    Most people are sheep, and some are shepherds.

    • drbettina

      Excellent points! Sometimes I think we assume others know better than us or more than us, especially since diffusion of responsibility increases with increasing numbers of people. People feel more comfortable conforming to what they perceive as the norm, often even if it is not the best response!

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