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The Bystander Effect

July 17, 2018

Imagine you’re standing on an empty sidewalk, and you see someone attacking another person a block away. If you know you’re the only person witnessing this attack, you probably feel the responsibility to do something about it, whether it’s physically helping the victim or calling for help.

However, if you’re standing on a crowded sidewalk, and you see someone attacking another person a block away, you’re much less likely to act. This phenomena is called the bystander effect. The more people there are in a collective group, the less personal responsibility each one feels in these types of situations. If 50 people are witnessing this attack, it’s easy to assume that one of the other 49 will step up and do something, so when you don’t act, you only feel 1/50th responsible for the outcome of the situation.

Throughout history, legal debates have erupted about this very issue. If we see something happening, what level of responsibility do we have for it?

The case of Kitty Genovese is one of the most frequently-cited examples of the bystander effect. On March 13, 1964, Genovese was walking back to her apartment in Queens, New York, at 3 a.m. when she was stabbed. She screamed and cried out for help, and the attacker initially fled the scene after attracting the attention of a neighbor. But about ten minutes later, he returned, assaulted Genovese, and killed her. Newspaper reports claimed that 38 witnesses watched the attack from neighboring apartment units and failed to intervene or even contact the police until after Genovese had died.

There are certainly life-threatening implications to the bystander effect, but more often they aren’t quite as dire. We’re faced with the choice to act or stand by many times in the routine activities of our daily lives.

Here’s a personal example. When my wife is not at home and laundry needs to be done, I do it. Why? Because I know that if I don’t, it won’t get done. But when my wife is at home, I’m less likely to tackle the pile of laundry on the couch. It’s not because I don’t want to serve her, or because I believe it’s her job to do. Instead, it’s because I subconsciously recognize that there’s another person that could do it. I feel less responsibility to take care of it. That’s why our laundry sometimes sits for a few days. We’re both waiting for the other person to do it.

Think about these situations: It’s the tenth time they’ve asked for volunteers to help with the children’s ministry at church, and we’re all waiting for the other couple hundred people in the congregation to step in and help.

In the office, when an extra job needs to be done to finish a project, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility to do it because there are others in the office that could step in and complete the task.

Let’s resist the temptation to fall prey to the bystander effect and find ways to feel, and accept, the responsibility we each hold.

If we will look through that lens, we’re less likely to assume that someone else will do it and far more likely to accept our responsibility to make something happen.

I have a new book out called The Lens of Leadership. It’s all about perspective because I believe the way we view things changes how we do things. If you’ve read The Lens of Leadership, don’t be a bystander—leave a review on Amazon!

CLICK TO ORDER The Lens of Leadership



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