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Inside The Mind Of A Bystander

Anytime you decide to go out all alone, even while walking down the street in front of your house in broad daylight, you look around to see if there are people around you. The more people around, the safer you feel. The feeling of other people walking by, minding their own businesses gives you a sense of normalcy and safety. A feeling that assures you that today is just like any other day and that nothing will go wrong. You feel that even if someone were to jump out of the shadows and hurt you, there are enough people around to help you. Even if you were to be stabbed or mugged at that moment, you feel that at least one of these bystanders will help you. But this feeling couldn’t be more wrong. What happens is the exact opposite. The more people around, the less likely you are to get help if anything were to go wrong. This is known as the ‘Genovese Syndrome’ or more commonly called the ‘Bystander Effect’.


While walking among a crowd, if something out of the ordinary happens, we have the tendency to look at others nearby. We look at others to gauge their reaction to the scene that has unfolded. Even if we understand the situation, our mind hasn’t yet decided if this is something to be panicked about. More often than not, even if we see someone in distress, we are more likely to ignore them thinking something along the lines of ‘There are so many people around, someone must have called for help’, ‘No one else is helping them, why should I?’ or ‘No one else is helping them, maybe they really don’t need any help’. And so, we walk away, while the victim is left thinking and hoping that among this many people, at least one of them will come forward to help. But the help never comes, and in the worst case scenario, the victim dies. A victim who could have easily been saved.

We are more likely to find help when there are lesser people around. Say you were stabbed in an alley in the evening, and someone walks by and sees you bleeding, he is more likely to come to your aid and call for help, since he sees that he is the only one around there, he might feel that if he doesn’t get any help soon, the victim might die. This sense of obligation and the lack of people to look for any kind of reaction, forces him to act and save the one in need.


When you are in a crowd, and there is a problem that does not concern you personally, it somehow becomes someone else’s problem. But when you are alone, and there is someone else who is in trouble, it becomes your problem, even if by a little. There is no one else to throw the responsibility onto and run away. And even if you do that, you will have your conscience nagging you endlessly, telling you that you could’ve done something.

There is also the case where gender and age becomes a factor. Old people, kids and, in half the cases women too, are generally not looked to for help in general. When the bystander is a man, standing among senior citizen, kids and women, and there is a threat to anyone, people tend to look to the male for help. Society has the tendency to take the male as the protector, and men themselves feel the same way. When they see that a woman, an old person or a kid is in danger, and sees no ‘capable men’ around to help, he feels the responsibility to act as their saviour. Consider the scenario where a male and a female have come to a park separately with their children. Suddenly a man comes by, brandishes a knife and threatens the lady. If the man were to look around now, he would only find a bunch of scared or oblivious children and a couple of senior people sitting in the park bench. In this case, he might consider himself to be the most capable person among the bystanders and take the initiative to help the lady in need. But the same might not happen if there were more adults around, and the man feels that there are others who could help.


In a similar manner, sometimes women tend to consider themselves to be weaker. If such a woman sees that someone is in need, looks around and sees that there are plenty of men nearby, she might not feel the need to interfere and help the person in need. She might think that, if the person really needed help, then there are plenty of men nearby who might be better able to help than she could. Or she might think that if she tries to help, fails and gets hurt herself, she might get chided for trying to do something that was not expected of her. And these are some of the reasoning that makes her look the other way.

So, a person’s mentality to help is not only based on his intentions, but also on the number of people nearby and the societal expectations based on his gender and age. But even in a huge crowd, if one of people moves to help, other people tend to join in most of the time. So, if you see someone in need, take the initiative, and the others will join you.

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