Psychology of Change

Over Coming the Bystander Effect to Increase the Effectiveness of Sustainability

All people have had the experience of being out in public and witnessing a situation that made them feel uncertain of what to do. Consider this scenario: a teenager screams as he is chased down a city street by a group of rambunctious fellow teenagers. Does he need help? Should someone intervene, or is it just a teenage game? People on the street stop and look and then glance away, confused and uncertain as to the appropriate response. This phenomenon is called bystander confusion or bystander effect: the tendency for individuals in a crowd to avoid helping another person who appears to be in need. The psychological explanation for bystander confusion is that the uncertainty of the situation (i.e., does he need help, or is he joking with friends?) causes people to look for cues from other people to tell them the appropriate response (i.e., call the police vs. ignore the noisy teens). The others present are equally uncertain, and interpret everyone else’s lack of action to mean that action must not be appropriate. The group becomes locked into uncomfortable, mutually reinforced inaction. Though it seems counterintuitive, the likelihood of individual action decreases as the number of bystanders increases: more people doing nothing increases the social perception that “nothing” is the proper response.

Environmental writer Janisse Ray has likened our current world climate situation to a society-wide case of bystander confusion. The analogy also works equally well for other social and sustainability issues. For global climate change, the comparison is this: despite urgent warnings from scientists that something must be done, most people have made few personal changes. When one looks around, one sees people making a few minor changes (perhaps changing light bulbs) but nobody appears to be taking the kinds of significant steps that might actually be commensurate with the urgency of scientists’ messages. Thus the social cues tell us “Serious action is not the appropriate response. The appropriate response is small action or ‘wait and see.’”

How do you break bystander confusion? In fact, the cycle of inaction dissolves at the first sign of someone stepping forward to take decisive action. In the screaming teenager scenario described above, a single voice yelling “Call the police!” would likely prompt six or seven of the onlookers to reach for their cell phones or even to rush to help the pursued teen.

Recommendations and examples:

• Make people aware of the phenomenon of bystander confusion. Let them know that people are often frozen in inaction simply because they don’t see anyone else taking action. Practice simple but compelling responses. This knowledge may give people the confidence to be the one to break the bystander confusion.(PSB Christie Manning 2009)

Watch the video to see a social experiment that shows text book results of the bystander effect.

Much of my new work in the “field” uses social psychology and principles of sustainability to create positive social change.

More to come on how the bystander effect was applied to the  Sustain Angoon Project.

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