The Bystander Effect

written by Chase F., Hollaback! Richmond Blogger

It is easy when we witness street harassment to simply keep walking or avert our eyes and stay quiet, pretending everything is ok or rationalizing why we couldn’t take the time to stop and help the victim. This process of rationalizing inaction or passing on the responsibility to act is referred to as the bystander effect. Researchers first turned their attention to the bystander effect following the murder of New York City resident Kitty Genovese in 1964; Genovese was stabbed and killed while at least 38 witnesses saw the murder happening, but made no attempts to intervene. (Darley) When questioned as to why they did not intervene, bystanders gave a range answers that included: physical harm, public embarrassment, involvement with the police, the assumption some one else had acted, and other, unknown dangers.


One aspect of research into the bystander effect that I found particularly intriguing was the idea that when you increase the number of bystanders in a situation, the less likely it is that someone will intervene. In such a situation, individuals diffuse responsibility to other bystanders, believing they do not need to help, because another person will. Researchers also found that “non-intervening subjects had not decided not to respond. Rather they were still in a state of indecision and conflict concerning whether to respond or not.” (Darley) While it is easy to label bystanders as apathetic or desensitized to violence, studies into the bystander effect tell us that these labels simplify the issue, but that they serve two purposes: it explains, at least nominally, the reason for the bystander effect, while simultaneously allowing others to deny that they would act similarly if they were also a bystander. Clearly, the issue is not that simple; if bystanders are in a state of indecision, then they are not apathetic. Instead, their indecision means there is an opportunity for them to intervene, but they are not sure how to help or if the victim needs help.


A feature of the bystander effect that helps create the necessary cognitive dissonance for an individual remain a bystander and not intervene, despite knowing that what is happening is wrong, is the halo effect. The halo effect “is a cognitive bias by which possession of one desirable trait is said to influence other traits about a person in positive ways.” (Buddie) For example, survey research demonstrated that when participants filled out surveys rating individuals on 27 desirable traits, including altruism, sincerity, and sophistication, participants rated attractive people higher than unattractive people on the same survey; they believed attractive people to be better people all around. This cognitive tendency explains why many bystanders do not try to prevent harassment, in incidents where the harasser possesses some positive characteristic, attractiveness being an easy example, the bystander may simply assume he is also a pleasant and nice person, dismissing the incident as no big deal. The reality, however, is that being attractive does not make an individual any less dangerous or catcalling any more welcome.


Even more interesting, though, is that when asked how female participants would respond to the same remarks, 20.3% of respondents reported they would be afraid of the unattractive man, while only 1.9% said they would be afraid of the attractive man. Furthermore, 27.1% of respondents said that they would enjoy the harassment if it were the attractive man making remarks, compared to 0.2% enjoying remarks made by the unattractive male. (Buddie) While this survey research showed how victims responded to different physical appearances, it is necessary to recognize these principles carry over to how bystanders interpret street harassment, both verbal and physical. Not only will the halo effect impact how bystanders view street harassment, but it may convince many that there is nothing wrong happening in the first place. For bystanders, it is important that we are able to set aside our own predispositions about a situation, and base our decision on whether or not to intervene on if the victim feels they are being harassed. Making simple statements such as, “are you okay?” or “is he bothering you?” are ways for bystanders to check in with the victim and find out if they need further help.


Research into the bystander effect suggests that different individuals will have different thresholds at which they perceive an act as harassment. While women will typically view an act as inappropriate or harassment at a lower threshold than men, research demonstrates that the differences still remain ambiguous.  “While women conceive of a broader range of behaviors as constituting sexual harassment than men, these differences are relatively small… potentially harassing behaviours are not perceived as harassment by either men or women until they become more severe, even if they are frequent.” (McDonald, 16) With this in mind, it is apparent that by intervening in street harassment, we also spread awareness of the problem and show others what they can do to stop it. Future bystanders then understand how to support victims of street harassment because they can identify inappropriate behaviors and take the needed steps to stop them.


 How to Get Involved and Stop Being a Bystander


For starters, HollaBack! has already put together an amazing guide for you, as a bystander, on how you to get involved in stopping harassment while it is happening:


It is important to recognize that there are many different ways you can get involved and provide support for the victims of harassment in the moment. Whether you take a direct, confrontational approach or attempt to distract the harasser, it is imperative to remove ourselves from being mere bystanders. Here is a simple way I have gotten involved at work to prevent harassment.


For myself, and I’m sure most of us, the most frustrating part about street harassment is how pervasive and regular it is in our day to day lives. Every day I see men making unwanted advances towards women while they are at work. The harasser uses their position as a ‘customer,’ and takes advantage of the obligation of a female employee to provide customer service. The victims must smile through comments and propositions, for fear of being reported by their harasser for being ‘rude.’


To combat this in my store, I started by first speaking with my female coworkers to identify the sorts of inappropriate behaviors they deal with and why they are wrong; it was both frustrating and saddening that some of my younger employees thought there was nothing they could do when men made these advances towards them at work. Once I had heard their perspectives on the situation, and how the harassment made them feel (unsurprisingly, they all agreed that they hated being hit on while at work, and felt powerless to stop it), we agreed that we would no longer allow this behavior to occur. This meant empowering my own employees to confront customers when they make inappropriate remarks or being able to come to me when they felt uncomfortable, and knowing that I would support them by either asking the customer to stop or having them removed if need be.


While this seems rather simple and obvious, this basic support network had been absent both in our store, and in their other jobs as well. I found, more often than not, the issue is that many reports of harassment are dismissed. Whether the individual doesn’t understand that a behavior is inappropriate or they just don’t care, it makes it even harder for women to come forward when they feel harassed.


You can find your own ways of preventing street harassment and providing support for victims as well, but it is imperative that we recognize our positions as bystanders when harassment occurs and become involved in stopping it in whatever ways we can.




Buddie, Melissa. (2012) Student Perceptions of Peer Sexual Harassment: The “Where” and the “How” Matter More than the “Who.” Department of Sociology, University of Notre Dame. 2012.


Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377–383. Copyright © 1968 by the American Psychological Association. Reprinted with permission.


McDonald, Paula K. & Flood, Michael (2012) Encourage, support, act : bystander approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace. Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney, NSW.

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