There is a phenomenon in psychology known as the bystander effect. It refers to the tendency of people to stand around and do nothing even when something potentially dangerous or criminal is happening to someone else right in front of them. The effect seems to increase with the number of people present as the tendency is to stay inactive and wait for someone else to do something. TV shows like “What Would You Do?” capitalize on this phenomenon by having actors stage scenes in restaurants or other locations to see how people do (or don’t) react.
This phenomenon came to mind recently when reading about the recent tragic passing of an undergraduate student at Denison University who was found dead of exposure not far from the university campus. While the exact circumstances of the tragedy are still being investigated, it is a possibility that the student was intoxicated and fell down before reaching a place of warmth.
This leads us back to the bystander effect. The opposite reaction is bystander intervention, in which people get up and do something about the situation occurring around them. This can occur in a lot of contexts on a college campus—have you ever seen a friend get intoxicated and want to drive a car/run off into the snow/get into a potential sexual assault situation? Have you ever seen a friend or classmate struggling with depression, or observed someone peering into car or apartment windows or trying doors, as if they were trying to break in?
It may be a natural human tendency to avoid getting involved, but it is a tendency that needs to be examined closely. Expressions like “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble” or “I don’t want to get involved” need to be weighed against the potential damage that could have been averted if someone had acted—and if you would want someone to intervene if you needed help. Not all tragedies can be averted, but many can, sometimes simply having someone decide to act, or making a phone call for help. While we are here, we are all part of a larger Case Western Reserve University community—so let’s opt for more bystander intervention and less bystander effect.
On the Beat is a weekly safety column written by Sergeant Jeffrey Daberko & Officer Mark (The Crossing Guard) Chavis of CWRU PD. Send feedback to this or other columns at email@example.com.