The Bystander’s Fallacy
The fallacy is to think “someone ought to intervene” and, at the same time, “it doesn’t have to be me.”
Garrett Kincaid — July 11, 2021
I’m sure you’ve heard of the bystander effect. It is “the social psychological theory that states that an individual’s likelihood of helping decreases when passive bystanders are present in an emergency situation” (1). Put simply, the more bystanders there are, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene.
It is a puzzling behavioral phenomenon because the number of people around shouldn’t affect our decision of what we ought to do. The bystander effect seems avoidable, yet it is it is so common, familiar, and easy to succumb to.
It’s worth looking at why the bystander effect exists and how we can subvert our tendency to defer to others.
The central issue of the bystander effect is a flaw in logical reasoning — a fallacy — on the part of the individual. Consider this. I am a bystander who decides not to intervene, despite believing it is the right thing to do.
Here is what my thought process might be, represented by a series of claims:
- Someone ought to intervene.
- It is so obviously the right thing to do that I’m sure everyone else agrees with me.
- Since there are so many people here (and because it’s so clear what should be done), I’m sure someone will do it.
- It doesn’t have to be me.
If I determine that someone ought to intervene in a situation and then don’t intervene because I expect someone else to, then that is a flaw in my ethical reasoning.
The easiest way to highlight the bystander’s fallacy is to universalize the thought process above. If everyone thought this way and came to the same conclusion (which is pretty likely), then no one would intervene. So, that brings into question claim number 4: “It doesn’t have to be me.” Who should it be, then, and why shouldn’t it be me?
The fallacy is to assert that “someone ought to intervene” and, at the same time, that “it doesn’t have to be me.” According to my reasoning, someone has to intervene. But if everyone were to think like me, then no one would intervene. So, actually, it does have to be me.
This simple shift in perspective can do a lot to counteract the bystander effect’s pull towards passivity: It has to be someone, and I am someone.
The bystander effect is one of those things that dissolves when you consciously attend to and understand it. If you are aware of people’s tendency to remain passive yet believe that someone should act, then you are more likely to be that someone.
There are three joint causes of the bystander effect that we should attend to and understand so that each can be dismantled — to free us from falling into the fallacy. These causes, each of which is its own topic in social psychology, are 1) the diffusion of responsibility, 2) pluralistic ignorance, and 3) evaluation apprehension (1).
The Diffusion of Responsibility
“You hang up.”
“No, you hang up.”
The main cause of the bystander effect is our tendency to shirk responsibility. The more bystanders, the more candidates there are to hoist the responsibility that we so readily slough off. But there is no threshold of fellow bystanders that has to be met for us to avoid taking action or making a decision. That desire is there all the time — the desire for ease, convenience, and sometimes anonymity. It is just that the more bystanders there are, the easier it becomes to convince ourselves that it’s okay not to act.
This is called the diffusion of responsibility. It is when individuals in a group attribute responsibility and blame to the whole group, instead of to themselves, which often leads them to believe that someone else will fulfill the group’s obligation (1).
With this mindset, it becomes the group’s responsibility to intervene. And if no one does, then it is the failure of the group, not of any individual. At that point, the responsibility is not shared amongst the group; it’s alienated from all individuals within the group. It’s a work-around way for one to shirk individual responsibility altogether.
In reality, it’s not a group’s responsibility that is shared equally. It’s a group of individuals that each have an equal responsibility.
The ideal way to avoid the diffusion of responsibility is to make the perspective-shift that we’ve already discussed. Think “it has to be me” instead of “it has to be someone in this group.”
“She clearly isn’t into me. She hasn’t liked any of my posts in the last two months.”
“Actually, I heard she just deleted the app.”
Certainly, part of the bystander effect is conformity. And part of conforming is making assumptions about what other people are thinking. We all know that most of those assumptions are wrong, but we believe them anyway. As bystanders, if we think someone ought to intervene but look around and see that no one is acting, we may assume that everyone has a good reason for not intervening. We may begin to doubt our own read of the situation.
Enter our next cause to conquer: pluralistic ignorance. This addresses the case where I, as a bystander, have decided to intervene and am looking for assurance from others that it is the right thing to do.
When discrepancies between norm-driven behavior and private feelings arise, pluralistic ignorance is the result. People know that their own behavior does not reflect their true sentiments, but they assume that other people are acting on what they genuinely feel (2).
Of course that’s what we do!
Imagine a bunch of suits in a boardroom. Do you think all of those people feel just as calm, stoic, and professional on the inside as they look on the outside? Nope! But does each of them get the impression that everyone else is in the room is calm and focused? Probably, and that’s the norm to which each person’s behavior conforms.
To overcome this tendency, understand the ubiquity of the human condition. People actually do think alike; other people think like you.
So many people in bumper-to-bumper traffic have the urge to lay on their horn. But, since they’ve only heard a few sporadic honks and not a wailing symphony of horns the whole ride home, many don’t honk their horn in an effort to act according to social norms.
Norms are good because they help society function. So, it’s not that you should subvert or combat every norm. Instead, just understand why you’re conforming. Don’t succumb to the belief that no one else is feeling or thinking the same way you are — that everyone else is capable of something that you aren’t.
Everyone wants to lay on their horn in traffic, and all the suits in the boardroom want to kick off their shoes.
The same goes for you or me as a bystander. If it seems like the norm is inaction, don’t assume that everyone has a good reason to resign. Figure that everyone is doing the same thing you are: looking for a social queue that confirms their belief that someone ought to intervene.
Don’t delude yourself by falling to pluralistic ignorance. Either consciously conform or subvert the norm.
“Yo, take me off the karaoke queue. My high-school ex is here.”
We have yet to address the case where a bystander believes that they should be the one to intervene but doesn’t out of fear of negative social consequences.
For the purpose of this discussion, let’s consider a situation that involves no physical risk and where intervening would require nominal effort. It is not dire emergencies but low-stakes situations were we most commonly find ourselves as bystanders, faced with the decision of whether to intervene or resign. And each of those decision-points are habit-building opportunities that can either amplify or reduce the bystander effect.
Imagine that there’s a server carrying a tray of stacked, empty cups from one side of a restaurant to the other. After a little stumble, a wobble, and a flash of hope that’s quickly extinguished, you, along with 24 other patrons in the restaurant, see and hear the server drop the whole tray of 50 plastic cups on the tile floor.
Does every person jump up, retrieve two cups each, and put them all back on the tray? Definitely not. Why? Do any of the 50 restaurant-goers think that it would be wrong to help pick up the cups? No. Is the inconvenience of putting down your fork or drink too great to bear? Also, no. Do each of the restaurant-goers think that someone ought to help pick up the cups? Almost definitely.
Most people are going to come up with some reason for why they shouldn’t be the one to help. It may be something like, “it’s clearly the right thing, so surely someone will do it.” (Sound familiar?)
Or, it could be that people are worried about others judging them if they were to be the one to offer help. Maybe they’re paralyzed by the thought of exposing their bloomers to the family in the next-door booth as they reach for a cup. It could simply be a fear of being seen.
Those sorts of worries constitute evaluation apprehension — an immobilizing fear of public judgment (3).
Admittedly, this is a hard one to overcome because it is based in emotion, not logic. So, let’s combat it with emotion.
One of my favorite quotes is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” He says,
Speak your latent conviction […] Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our opinion from another.
It is a call to share your thoughts and beliefs.
What Emerson highlights is the all-too-familiar feeling of shame and regret that come from not expressing what you think, only to have it told to you as if you didn’t already know.
It’s a similar case for the bystander that faces evaluation apprehension.
We can use this quote to build an analogy between two imperatives: 1) “speak your mind” and 2) “act on your reasoning.”
Back in the restaurant, let’s say that you’re seated at one of the tables closest to the cup-fumble. Three people help pick up cups, and you are about to stand up and lend a hand as you see a fourth person come over to help. For a second, you’re relieved that it took someone else just as long as you to intervene. But then you realize that the fourth person was seated the furthest from from the incident and may have actually been the quickest to act. By the time all that goes through your mind, all 50 cups are back on the tray, the server is on his way, and you’re still squarely in your seat.
Wouldn’t that sort of inaction bring about that be the same feeling of shame that Emerson talks about? You know what is right, fail to act, and then see others act for you — just as you might know what you think, never express it, and then have someone explain your idea to you.
That feeling straight up sucks.
It’s humiliating to be shown how to act when you already know how you should have acted. If that’s what’s at stake, then by all means, intervene and avoid that feeling.
The other thing to consider here is that all of the negative judgments that you dream up aren’t real. And it’s more likely that you would receive praise — not judgement — for helping, or at least people would silently affirm your actions. If anything, there would be positive social consequences, especially in the cases where it’s obvious that someone ought to intervene.
So, to dispel evaluation apprehension, recognize that the judgments you foresee are all in your head and that you would more likely receive praise. And, value your self-evaluation and your morality above what other people think of you. Would you rather do what you thought was right and have someone disagree with you or feel sincerely ashamed because you knew what was right and failed to act?
That’s easy. Get up there and sing karaoke.
Conclusion and Recap
Ideally, knowing what you ought to do should be enough for you to do it. But there are many challenges to face and hurdles to clear between just passively knowing what to do and actually doing it.
Of course, severe situations are going to amplify doubts and often require courage if you are to intervene. In high-stakes situations, as a bystander, you may also have to consider your personal safety. But all of those considerations are part of the process of deciding whether you should intervene. If you go through that process and determine, through your own reasoning, that you ought to intervene, then you should.
Recognize also that it is in low-stakes situations that we can build habits of subverting the bystander effect and hone our process of reasoning. The more willing you are to intervene when there is no risk and no cost (given that you determine that you ought to intervene), the easier it will be to deal with dire situations as a bystander.
It has to be you because it has to be someone.
You can be the exception to the rule of the bystander effect. You need only understand what causes it and consciously subvert unconscious tendencies.
Don’t shirk responsibility or make assumptions about what other people are thinking, and place more value on your self-evaluation than you do on others’ judgments.
Your primary responsibility is to act according to your own reason. Don’t let the diffusion of responsibility, pluralistic ignorance, evaluation apprehension, or anything else inhibit you from doing that.
- “Bystander Effect and Diffusion of Responsibility” — SimplyPsychology
- “Pluralistic Ignorance” — iResearchNet
- “Exposure to Ideas, Evaluation Apprehension, and Incubation Intervals in Collaborative Idea Generation” — NCBI
Is this approach sufficient to negate the bystander effect? What is it missing? Let me know, and thank you for reading!