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  • Writer's pictureAndy Murphy

How To Be A Bystander

What to do if you are a Bystander

If you’ve been following The Secure Dad for any length of time you know that no place is safe from violence. Bad things happen to good people, and sometimes bad things happen to people who are minding their business.

When a crime occurs in a busy environment there are bad guys, good guys, and everyone who happened to be there. Those who happened to be there are often called bystanders.

Bystanders are people who present at an event, incident, or crime but who are not taking part.

Many times bystanders are witnesses. While we might not be involved in a violent event, we still need to know what to do, even if we’re not directly in danger.

In the news recently it seems like all over the country innocent people are being harmed or killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Colorado, we saw a good guy with a gun stop an active shooter only to be mistaken for the shooter, then shot and killed by the responding police. In California, an officer shot at a suspect and missed. A round fired by the officer accidentally killed an innocent man in his car.

Both of the aforementioned cases are very dynamic and deserve more attention than I have time for today. I bring up these very different cases to remind you that you don’t need to stick around when danger happens around you.

While some of it may not be avoidable, if it is within your ability, you need to leave when police are responding to something in your area. Give them space to work and don’t do anything that would make them think you are involved in their response.

Mo People, Mo Problems

Let me ask you this, would you think that in the event of a car accident people would be more or less likely to respond if there were a large group of bystanders? After all, two sets of eyes are better than one, so why wouldn’t 10 or 12 sets be even better.

With a greater number of people, you’d think there’d be a greater chance of someone helping, but that’s not the case. And it is proven time and again.

The bystander effect is when there is a greater number of people present, the less likely they are to help someone in need.

So the opposite is true, the fewer people present means the greater chance someone will assist someone in need. Doesn't that sound counterintuitive?

Researchers Darley and Latane came up with the bystander effect and they proved it over and over again.

To show this idea in action universities all over the world set up scenarios in public where someone falls and they wait and see who helps based on the crowd size. Also, the person’s socioeconomic status can be a factor, too but that’s a topic for another time.

So the bystander effect boils down to more people equals fewer chances for help.

Why We Might be Hesitant to Help

The first reason people might be hesitant to respond is that the burden of responsibility is diluted in a larger crowd. The more people are around the less likely an individual will be compelled to act. People’s actions blend into the crowd. And it’s easy to hide in the crowd, too.

Another reason is that humans like fitting in with the crowd. If no one else is helping then is it socially acceptable to stand out from the crowd and assist?

Individuals take their cues from the crowd and may not offer help simply based on the fact that no one else is doing it. This goes back to a deep psychological concept of monkey see, monkey do.

If individuals look to the group to find the appropriate way to respond, they may just become a bystander and not a helper. The thought could be that intervention isn’t needed if no one else has done it.

I’ll throw in my own two cents here. This goes back to what I said recently,

“If people don’t know how to act, they won’t".

If someone falls and breaks their nose with blood going everywhere, if people don’t know first aid, then they're less likely to do anything helpful. I feel this is because they don’t feel like they have the skills to contribute then they won’t. And some people are thankfully aware of that.

Years ago I worked with a guy who wasn’t good under pressure, like with work situations and safety concerns. He boasted to me after an incident at our building that there are people who run to danger, but as he put it, “That’s just not me, man.” And at that moment I respected his decision.

Not everyone is a helper, not everyone is a hero and we can't expect the average person to be. The assumption to be a hero is unfair.

And also, if you don’t want to help - that’s okay. I know that sounds weird coming from me, right? But like we established before, not everyone is a helper. If we all were, then we’d all be a lot better off.

But if you’re not going to help - that’s fine, just leave. Removing yourself from that situation is the best thing you can do for yourself and everyone else.

If you do want to help but are unsure of what to do then don’t burden yourself with providing a level of response that you’re not comfortable with.

If an answer isn’t obvious or is above your skill level, then call 911. Calling for help is a big deal and it’s critical to every emergency so that is a big, brave step.

The Digital Bystander

In today’s world, we have another element to a crisis and it’s the digital bystander. You guessed it, a digital bystander is someone who takes pictures, goes live, or shoots video of a crisis without helping anyone involved.

A street fight is being recorded.

These people then post their videos to social media for likes or comments so they can feel good about themselves. Most of the time they are doing more harm than good.

While you may think that this is a new phenomenon that comes in the digital age, it’s not. Just like with cyberbullying the internet just offers humans a new way to be reprehensible like they always were.

Humans have been idiots forever, now we just have social media to tell us faster. So while the method of communication may have changed, human behavior has not.

Don’t Count on the Crowd

The point that I hope I’m making here is that when something happens, you can’t count on someone coming to your aid. As we’ve proven, not everyone will help because not everyone is a helper. As much as you can, take responsibility to get yourself out of the situation you are in and call for help yourself.

Now that you know this, do you think you can be a better bystander? Simply knowing what the Bystander Effect is will help you shape a response if you witness a crisis.


Andy Murphy

Andy Murphy founded The Secure Dad in 2016 with the aspiration to help families live safer, happier lives. What started as a personal blog about family safety has turned into an award-winning podcast, an Amazon best-selling book, and online courses. He focuses his efforts in the areas of home security, situational awareness, and online safety.


Andy is a husband and father. His interests include coaching youth basketball, hiking, and trying to figure out his 3D printer.

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