#DolphinsLiveWell: See something, say something…Don’t just be a bystander!

Michele Anson, Graduate Psychology Intern, Wellness Center for Health & Counseling

What feelings does the word “bystander” evoke? Casual interest? Curiosity? Outrage? Your reaction will most likely be determined by your experience or understanding of bystander behavior. If you have ever found yourself concerned about a situation – but doing nothing – you’re not alone. It’s called the Bystander Effect.

The bystander phenomenon is fascinating when regarded from a social and psychological point of view. But it’s devastating when viewed through the lens of someone who has been a victim of the effect. A bystander is one who….stands by…or next to…or across the room…or across the street from an injustice or dangerous situation while it’s occurring. Situations involve aggression and can include scenarios such as hateful speech, bullying, robbery, physical abuse and sexual assault. Experts state that the likelihood of bystander effect occurring increases as the number of people watching the incident increase.

One reason for this is the diffusion of responsibility. People assume that someone else is going to take responsibility and act on behalf of the victim. As a result, no one does. Bystanders tend to operate from a position of fear-fear of getting it wrong, fear of not having the right skills to help, and fear of what other people might think of them if they do step up and speak out. And bystanders often do nothing because they have become so used to certain situations that they begin to think they are “normal” when they are not-picking on the weakling can seem funny; arguments between couples get brushed off as commonplace; and watching a drunk friend leave a bar or a party with a guy or girl can seem innocuous.

But the alarming reality is that someone is getting hurt. Or is going to get hurt. So there is a need for bystander intervention. Bystander intervention [or interrupting the bystander effect] is successful when people understand the imminent or potential harm of a situation, have the knowledge to assist in the prevention of harm, and act in defense of the defenseless by speaking up, doing something about it and bringing the other person to safety.

The first step in bystander intervention is becoming aware of the occurrence. Recognize that help is needed and notice that your first instinct may be to not take responsibility. Is someone hurt? In need of help? Acknowledge that assistance is required and decide to be the one who will intervene.

The second is to decide which form of intervention you will use. Pause and consider what is needed. Will you say something? Step in? Call 911? Lead the person to safety? Your safety is important, too, so think about the best way to help without endangering yourself. Are you alone or are there others around who can support you in your efforts?

And the third is to act. Making direct eye contact with a person in the crowd and giving specific commands can help break the power of the bystander effect. Commands such as, “You in the blue shirt, call 911!” or “You in the green sweatshirt, come and help me!” can snap people out of the paralysis that often occurs as a result of their disbelief, confusion, or uncertainty.

Lastly, tell your story. It can help you make meaning of your experience, validate it, and encourage others to follow your lead by stepping up to bringing safety to someone else. You can read stories of people who chose to be engaged bystanders at www.nsvrc.org  [National Sexual Violence Resource Center] through the “Share your stories” link on the sidebar.

An opportunity to look out for one another will present itself soon as students attend the upcoming Halloween party. The person might get mad at you, but at least he or she is mad…and safe. Regardless of where you find yourselves, remember to watch out for one another. Practice being a person who intervenes. Courage is being afraid – and acting anyway. In doing so, you can help prevent a tragedy.