Bikes, Bystander Apathy and Cosmic Karma


As usual I took my daughter to the local play area at the weekend. it was a sunny Spring day and it was pretty busy. There were about twenty adults and maybe twice as many children. After about ten minutes our not so peaceful play was disturbed by the sound of an off-road motorbike being driven on the sports fields next to the play area.

I'm generally pretty relaxed, but this is a) illegal, b) dangerous and c) very, very annoying. Everyone in the play area clearly could see and hear the two idiots on the motorbike and much shaking of heads and tutting went on. 

You could see couples talking to each other that something should be done. The young men on the motor bike would stop for five minutes every so often and we would all look over and shake our heads. This went on for about thirty minutes during which I clearly recall looking around and thinking what a disgrace it was that someone didn't go over and tell them to cease their antisocial behavior. What kind of responsible parents would allow their children to be exposed to the noise, risk and bad example without making any effort to intervene?

My daughter shook me from my reverie. 'Why don't you go and tell them to stop?' She asked. I proceeded to explain that she was quite right and someone should go and do something. 'Why don't you? You're a doctor'.

Poor naive child! I started explaining that my medical qualification had little value in this situation and that there were clearly other adults much better qualified (ie bigger, tougher and less cowardly) than me. I got half way through my explanation when the look on her face clearly communicated that she disapproved and would probably tell her mother, my wife, of my craven performance. So, with a long sigh, I headed over. 

As I walked towards the two increasingly large-looking youths I reflected that I had had a fulfilling life and my life insurance was up to date. As I got near I put on my most manly voice, looked them in the eye and said something along the lines of 'now look here chaps; it really isn't cricket doing this. Please desist' or words to that effect. Anyway fortunately for me rather than beating me to a pulp they revved the bike up, told me to 'F%@K Off!' and sped off.

Possibly one of the worst places to need help!

Possibly one of the worst places to need help!

Andres, my co-founder, believes in a scientific world ruled by physics. I'm less sure. If ever there was a glimpse of the divine it was seeing them slide the bike, fall off (unhurt) and the bike end up wrapped round a concrete post. To add to their humiliation there were at least twenty children laughing at them!

Anyway what's all this to do with psychology? Well, I and all the other adults were displaying bystander apathy or effect.  This is a psychological process in which people fail to intervene to help or act in an 'emergency' when there are others around. The effect increases as the size of the group increases, it also increases if the situation is unclear or ambiguous. This means if someone falls from a height and starts screaming 'help!' people will probably intervene, but if they just lie there they may not. 

As is often the case most of the classic experiments were done in the 60's and 70's when psychologists thought nothing of traumatising their experimental subjects! Latané and Darley demonstrated the effect in the laboratory and the factors that impacted on it. Since then further research has identified more factors. It still seems the size of the group plays a part but also the degree of ambiguity, perceived consequences of acting, if people identify with a victim and the bystanders own perception of their competence all play a part. 

Whilst my experience is mildly amusing this cognitive process has led to horrific circumstances and failures of people to intervene when they could have saved lives.

If you want to avoid falling prey to it there's something you can do. My daughter stumbled upon it when she singled me out of the crowd and made it my responsibility to intervene; that tends to work. If you are the victim ask 1 specific person for help. It is best if you tell them exactly what you want them to do. The interesting thing is that once 1 person does something others in the crowd will follow suit and help as well. If you are a member of the crowd and feel strangely compelled to stay put when you know you shouldn't you can ask someone in the crowd to help you do something specific about the situation. That way it won't be just you jumping in; there will be two of you. This in turn will make it more likely that others in the crowd will also join in and help.

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