The Bystander Effect: Why we are less likely to help when others are nearby

What is the Bystander Effect?

In an emergency, we tend to think help is more likely and would come faster if there are five people in the street compared to only one, but this is frequently untrue. The chances are, those five people won’t help at all, while the person alone would!

Of course, some leap into action at the first sign of trouble, but we are often less likely to help someone in trouble when there are others nearby. Furthermore, if we do decide to act, it’s a lot slower than when we are alone. Social psychologists call this the bystander effect.

 Why does this happen?

It’s natural to think the act of helping is a two-step process: 1) we see something bad happening and 2) we go to help. It’s a little more complicated than that.

 The five steps we take before helping people:

Step 1) We notice what is happening

Step 2) We realise someone must do something to help

Step 3) We take responsibility to help

Step 4) We decide how to help

Step 5) We go to help


Any of these steps can be disturbed and we might stop helping. Let us go through how this happens below.

How the steps change when there are people with us:

Step 1) When there are people with us, we are less likely to pay attention to our surroundings, so we are slower to notice what is happening.

Step 2) When we notice, we try to stay calm and see how other people react. If everyone looks calm while peeking at each other for hints, we start to think: no one else is panicking, maybe the situation isn’t so serious.

Step 3) In a crowd, we are also less likely to take responsibility to give help: there are other people, someone else will help right?

Steps 4 and 5) Oh no, everyone is watching. I won’t do anything because I don’t want to embarrass myself.


Does this mean help will never come?

Now, some of you might be wondering: does this mean no one will help me if I’m in trouble? I have good news. The situation is reversed if the crowd is large enough. 

 Two years ago, a study looked at 219 real-life events in Cape Town, Amsterdam, and Lancaster. The study found that more people will help if the crowd is bigger. This is because, even if any single person is less likely to help, someone out of the crowd will probably do something. This is the same across all three cities, so we are safer around others after all according to this study!

What next?

We are less willing to help when others are nearby, but just by realising this, we can overcome the bystander effect by stepping up ourselves.

When we need help, we are most likely to find it in a crowd by singling out one person: “You in the red shirt, call the ambulance!”

Ting Cleary


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