Don’t be a hero! Benefits of the bystander effect

Patrons exit a crowded soccer stadium

By Kevin R. Betts

I started reading a book this weekend titled, “The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life.” Author Len Fisher’s central idea is that understanding swarm intelligence can help us make better decisions. Swarm intelligence refers to the collective behavior of decentralized organisms, whether they be locusts, ants, humans or otherwise. The inside cover reads, “…we can use swarm intelligence to start a craze, to work better in committees and get more from our social networks, or even to know when we should change our minds.” Stated simply, it is sometimes in our best interest to just follow the crowd.

As a student of social psychology, one particular question that Fisher asks caught my attention. When in an emergency situation, how can one best navigate a crowd to exit an area where others are also trying to exit? Real life examples of such situations include the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 as well as the nightclub fires in Rhode Island in 2003 and Moscow in 2009. Fisher’s recommendation is that potential victims head straight for the exits and continue onward until they are at a safe distance. He suggests that this ideal strategy is often impeded, however, by individuals who stop to seek out loved ones or secure their belongings and interfere with the flow of exiting traffic. What Fisher is suggesting is that we not try to be heroes. Rather, we should get the heck out while we can and expect that others are doing the same!

Fisher’s solution to this problem caught my attention because it promotes safety by discouraging helping behavior. It is known that in emergency situations where many people are present, people often fail to provide assistance because they either do not notice the incident, fail to interpret it as an emergency, or fail to assume responsibility. In the case of the 2001 terrorist attacks or the nightclub fires, it is probably the failure to assume responsibility which discourages helping the most. Social psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the bystander effect and have focused much effort on techniques to overcome it. This is because in most cases, it is socially advantageous to help. For example, coming to the aid of an individual experiencing a heart attack on a crowded street might save a life. Yet, as Fisher makes apparent, other situations exist where the best way to help others is simply to help ourselves.

Few of us will ever find ourselves in situations like those experienced by victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks or Rhode Island and Moscow nightclub fires. If we are so unfortunate, however, we might wish to take Fisher’s advice by at least considering whether our assistance would be of any value. What would you do in this situation? Do you expect that your loved ones would do the same?

Read more:

5 years after a nightclub fire, survivors struggle to remake their lives (New York Times)

Hoefnagels, C., & Zwikker, M. (2001). The bystander dilemma and child abuse: Extending the Latané and Darley Model to domestic violence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 1158-1183

View more posts by Kevin R. Betts

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