The Bystander Effect

Banjo Damilola

We all like to think we would step in to help somebody in distress, but the reality is that many people don’t. What is the Bystander Effect and how does it play out in real time?



CCTV footage at a gas station in Utah showed a woman being kidnapped in broad daylight. Of course, the crime itself is appalling but also as worrisome is that no one tried to help the woman.

She ran to one of the men at the station, crawled under his truck to hide from her assailant but the man she ran to simply stepped aside, giving the kidnapper enough space to drag her out.

All the people at the scene watched as she was lifted from the ground, held on the kidnapper’s shoulder and whisked away. No one interrupted. No one intervened. 

In fact, police say they got little assistance from the key witnesses. The good news though, the woman is now safe and her kidnapper arrested.  But why didn’t anyone help her?


I approached this street vendor. He was tall. 

This is Trishla Ostwal, a journalism student at Columbia University.

Trishla_1 continued

I am quite a tiny person so for me everyone is tall but this guy was like 6 feet or something and was intimidating me on the 34th street filled with people. And it’s broad daylight. 


A bit of the back story. The man Ostwal is describing is a street vendor, whom she’d approached, hoping to photograph his cart. He was fine with it, as long as it was just the cart. Not him. Trishla agreed, but while she clicked away the man wandered into one of her shots. When she was done, the vendor asked to see the pictures she’d taken and froze on one where he appeared. 


He was triggered by it. He was like mounting over me and he was like delete that picture or I am going to break your camera. He got rough and tough and at one point… because I was moving away from him, I didn’t want him to come close to me. He kinda yanked me towards his cart. Like took his hands and kind of hit my head towards… like pulling me towards his cart. 

My immediate instinct was to look around… like okay, can someone help me out? And I see there are NYPD, there are people, they are just going around doing their thing. No one came to my rescue, no one batted an eye. 


Seeing people who stand by or simply walk away is a constant fixture in many viral videos of hate crimes and public attacks in the United States. Gabriela Mejia from Hollaback, an organisation that trains people on bystander intervention, says it’s called the bystander effect.


The bystander effect is when we are in a group of people, we are sort of waiting for that person next to us or another person to be the first person to do something. 


There are lots of reasons people don’t get involved in public fights and depending on who you ask, the reason could be personal inhibition or something more serious. 


I don’t know if this is right but what I do think is if I were a white a person, if I were a white girl, maybe someone would have intervened but because I am brown, maybe they didn’t. This is my understanding.


WHy do you think that?


Because the NYPD was right there and chose to ignore this incident. I remember there was another cart next to this guy and that guy was just watching. I don’t know if this is culturally acceptable here but for me personally, it is just wrong.  


In many ways, as sad as it is, it is understandable. 


That’s Marita [Et cooo bah nez] Etcubanez of Asian American Justice Center AAJC.  


People are themselves scared to get involved. They are fearful for their own safety. Like, will engaging in this make me become a target of harassment. would I be putting myself at risk if I try to intervene? A lot of people might want to do something but they don’t know what to do. 


I wanted to know what people think they might do if faced with a situation like the one ostwal described.. So I went to 34th street, by the penn station, just right where her incident happened.


Banjo: What’s your name please?

Man 1: Anthony

Banjo: Anthony, you’re here right now and you see someone getting kicked, what would you do?

Anthony: I will try to stop it

Banjo: How would you do that?

Anthony: Peacefully

Banjo: How?

ANthony: I will just observe the situation first and if it is violent, I am going for the police. If it’s not I will say let me see if I can help you guys to figure it out.

Woman 1: I would call 911, I guess. 

Banjo: Before 911 gets here, what would you do?

Woman 1: I would try to get help.

Banjo: How

Woman1: I don’t know. I will ask somebody who is stronger than me.

Woman 2 and friend: I practice taekwondo. So maybe I will try to help him and kick him too. I will try to do that. 

Banjo: Thank you. What about you?

Friend: I would try to help him? 

Banjo: How would you help?

Friend: I don’t know. I don’t know. I will try to … yeah, like say to somebody bigger than me like hey, help him, help him

Friend: laughs

Banjo: Okay, maybe that would work. 

Friend: Yeah

Man 2: I am not trying to be a samaritan,  I am going to walk away and save my own life. I am going to mind my own business. This is New York. You don’t mind your business, you could be losing your life too. 

Man 4: I will turn a blind eye because that’s not my business though. Anit gonna make nigger kill me for nothing just because of people. Ain’t the lord, the lord deals with that shit. 

Group of friends: I will keep walking because it is none of my business. If they are calling for help, then maybe. // if he looks like he will be fine and just getting beat up from a regular fight, I wouldn’t risk my life. If he is getting beat up by multiple people and his life is in danger, then I might risk my life. 

Banjo: Thank you very much. 

Group of friends: I will help you out if you’re getting beaten. // oh yeah! We got your back. 


Fear of getting hurt is one of the reasons many would choose to mind their own business. There have been instances where bystanders who intervened in public attacks got injured themselves. So, how can fear be addressed?


What we like to tell people is that, let’s acknowledge that it takes a little bit of courage to be that first person to do something but if you’re in a situation where there are other people around you, you can just be a catalyst for others. 


If you see something happening. Cause a distraction to divert attention away from the harasser. Deprive them of attention. 


Mejia and Etcubanez are explaining the 5 Ds of bystanders intervention. Hollaback and AAJC teach these techniques as ways people can help when they see someone getting harassed in public.


Delegate, distract, document, delay are all indirect actions where you are not talking to the person doing the har,. 


There is also direct intervention which is what most people think of, right? Like, hey, stop it or physically intervene. 


It’s logical not to intervene in fights and perhaps there are 1001 justifiable reasons to support it but our society is that which thrives on our dependence on one  another. While the fears are real, we all hope that someone will stand up for us when we are in distress. And as much as we expect such generosity from people, we ourselves should be willing to do the same for others – even if they are perfect strangers..

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