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Breaking the Silence: Unveiling the Bystander Effect

Trigger warning: The following article contains discussion on sexual assault, which some readers may find distressing.


Recently, I heard a story in the news which horrified me, as I’m sure it did you. A 20-year-old woman was sexually assaulted on a London Tube, in broad daylight and in plain sight of other passengers. However, the presence of these witnesses did not stop the attack from occurring, and no one on the tube did anything to stop it from happening.


While the sole responsibility for this attack lies with the perpetrator, the incident left me questioning how it could have possibly occurred in the presence of numerous passengers who could have intervened. I have always been taught and believed in the concept of safety in numbers and feeling more secure when surrounded by people. However, this story has challenged this belief. It has left me questioning whether there is ever a time when we can confidently leave the house alone and not be checking over our shoulders, worried that something might happen, and no one will help.


And I am by far not the only one asking these questions — the story has ignited outrage on several social media platforms, with the term ‘bystanderism’ or ‘the bystander effect’ being the focus of conversation.

In trying to understand how this event could have been allowed to unfold, I decided to do some research into the bystander effect and took to writing this article to help myself, and hopefully our readers, learn why people behave this way, and what we can do to overcome it safely and effectively.

Understanding the Bystander effect

Bystanderism is defined as a scenario in which individuals do not help people in critical situations due to the presence of other people observing the same situation. It can occur in any situation where people are in danger; however, for the purpose of this blog, I will be focusing on the bystander effect in the context of women’s safety. This is not only because of the story which ignited me to write this piece, but also because proactive bystanders play a pivotal role in shifting the narrative surrounding the prevention of sexual violence. Promoting bystander intervention can move the focus from victims feeling a need to defend themselves, to recognising it as a community issue that demands collective action.

According to the bystander effect, people are less likely to intervene in emergency situations when they are surrounded by bigger groups of people than if they were the only person on the scene. Psychologists Latane and Darley (1970) have offered a couple of explanations as to why this is the case:


  • Diffusion of responsibility — Consider that you are the only person witnessing an emergency. In such a scenario, 100% of the responsibility to help falls on you. Whether you help or not, that burden will only be yours, making you more likely to intervene. However, if there are several other people around who could help, the share of the responsibility is spread, and the psychological cost of you not intervening is reduced.

  • Social influence — When we are unsure of what scenario is unfolding, we look to other people for reassurance of what needs to be done. If you are in a crowd of people who are not intervening in a dangerous situation, you may begin to wonder if you are in fact witnessing an emergency and are likely to go with the crowd and believe that everything is okay, encouraging a state of mutual denial.


In an interesting article from The Guardian, it’s noted that individual bystanders may also choose not to intervene based on their distinct characteristics and obligations. Some men might hesitate, fearing they could inadvertently escalate the situation and be perceived as a threat. Those accompanied by loved ones might grapple with the risk of their safety, while younger individuals might feel powerless, doubting their ability to make a meaningful difference.


This research has allowed me to understand why people might hesitate to intervene in emergencies, prompting me to reflect on my own potential actions. While I’d like to believe I would run to someone’s aid, the reality is that when faced with such circumstances, the stress, hesitation, fear of repercussions, and uncertainty can influence one’s immediate response and decision-making.


However, if we don’t step in to help, it raises the unsettling question:


When can women feel truly safe in public?


While the ideal scenario would be to prevent such attacks altogether, given the rising rates of sexual harassment and normalisation of sexual assault against women, it is important that we learn to become proactive bystanders, so that if a situation arises, we can act quickly. Further, silent bystanders inadvertently signal acceptance, leading perpetrators to believe their harmful behaviour is acceptable.


How can we be proactive bystanders?

In situations where someone needs help, it can be incredibly frightening and anxiety-provoking to know what the best, and safest, thing is to do. In light of this, an anti-harassment group, Right To Be, have designed a checklist for bystanders in order to raise awareness of the safest way to intervene without escalating the situation or putting yourself in danger. The checklist, entitled ‘The 5D’s of Bystander Intervention’ encompasses:


1.     Distract — diverting attention away from a potentially harmful situation

2.     Delegate — where one seeks assistance from others or authorities

3.     Direct — directly intervening or confronting the situation, if safe to do so

4.     Document — the collection of evidence or information about the situation for appropriate action or reporting

5.     Delay — wherein one checks on the individual after a potentially harmful incident has occurred, offering support.


Ultimately, while bystanderism remains a pressing issue, it is crucial to recognise that it is not the root cause of violence against women in public spaces. It is important that we encourage ourselves to act when we can, but also to redirect our focus from a need to defend to a need to change men’s behaviour so we never find ourselves in a situation of needing to intervene.


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