The Bystander Effect

It has always amused me, that there are certain people who find comfort in a crowd. Perhaps I am merely biased towards my own predisposition, but I have always felt more alive and productive when I am by myself, or with just a partner, versus a group effort. Interestingly, the sermon this Sunday made mention of the social phenomena known as the bystander effect. This refers to the the tendency of people to be less predisposed to offer help or assistance to someone in need. For example, in a crowded street, when one gets mugged, there is an inversely proportional ratio to the likelihood of someone offering help versus the number of people. If only one is present to help, there is an eighty percent chance that the lone bystander will help you. If there is a group of three people around, it drops about twenty percent and your chances of being helped drops to a meager 62  percent and so on. It has puzzled sociologists and psychologists that we are deem to be born with this human flaw universally.

I remember way back in college that I first came across this term in my social psychology class as we were discussing diffusion of responsibility. This phenomenon occurs in a critical size of a group, one of which is the bystander effect. Another common example of this, especially in Filipino culture is known as groupthink. This is very common in families and happens when instead of making decisions on a more rational and objective basis, you tend to favor harmony and unanimity in making your choice. For example, you really want to explore more possibilities overseas, but since you know that the majority, or worse, everyone in your family thinks you should stay and explore your options in a more workable proximity, you decide to stay and forgo your original option. This is often the reason why when conflicts arise, people tend to blame one another, even if nothing was ever really explicitly agreed upon. A classic example of diffusion of responsibility.

In a more subdued note, social loafing is likewise a manifestation of diffusion of responsibility. This happens when a group work seems less productive than an individual’s efforts. This occurs because we have the natural tendency to believe that we need to put on lesser effort because other people are working with us anyway. However, this is made even worse when we know that one of our group members is highly reliable, dependable and responsible, that we do not even attempt to take on the difficult parts anymore and purposely place the bulk of the work to this single individual.

I am comfortable being a bystander. And I know that working by myself prevents me from dawdling on this tendency. So I guess I really shouldn’t be complaining that I only have myself to rely on.


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