What Causes the Bystander Effect? (+5 Different Types)

What is the bystander effect?

The bystander effect is unfortunately a very common practice in today’s world.

The bystander effect refers to when someone else is in a compromising situation and no one comes to the aid of the person in trouble, even though they can see that someone is in danger.

This phenomenon occurs because people think that someone else observing the situation will help them out.

If not as many people are observing someone in trouble, then there’s a higher likelihood that someone will come to help the person in trouble.

Understanding why and how this happens is extremely important in making sure that people do the right thing and help someone out who is in a dangerous situation. 

A bystander is viewed as just as dangerous as the person who is inflicting harm on the victim.

Instead of taking action to help the person in trouble, the bystander just observes what is happening and sees the situation unfold instead of doing anything to stop it.

From a moral and ethical standpoint, this is considered wrong because helping the victim should be someone’s first course of action as opposed to standing around and watching someone else get hurt.

Several people are more likely to wait around for someone else to jump in and help the victim as opposed to being the first person to take action. 

Yet there are several factors that stop the bystander from taking action. In a lot of situations, a bystander simply doesn’t know what to do.

Instead of taking action, they silently and unknowingly provide approval to the person inflicting harm by standing around and watching the scene unfold.

In being observed, the culprit receives some sense of validation and continues to hurt the victim. This keeps the bystander from helping someone else in grave danger.

As the situation worsens, it becomes more and more difficult for the person to intervene and help the person who is at risk. 

Another cause of the bystander effect is something called the diffusion of responsibility. This commonly happens when the number of bystanders in the crowd begins to increase.

The bystanders watch the situation unfold, which diffuses the personal responsibility to take action against the perpetrator among many people.

This also leads a lot of people to believe that they are not responsible for what is happening to the victim and therefore they’re in no position to help the victim. 

Part of the psychology behind the bystander effect is a phenomenon called social ignorance.

Social ignorance refers to the concept that several people privately reject a norm.

This means that several people are ignorant of the time and place where they should take action. 

A lot of people who practice being a bystander often refuse to believe what is happening in front of them.

The effect actually places some sort of distance between the human connection we would ordinarily feel toward the victim.

By emotionally distancing yourself, you somehow feel like you’re not willing to help the person who is in danger.

The bystander effect is so common that people actually record videos of the victim being hurt and makes their pain something to watch instead of end. 

Hawthorne effect, like the Bystander effect shows how the presence of other people effect one’s own decisions and actions.


Types of Bystanders:

There isn’t just one type of bystander; in fact, there are several kinds. Below are some examples of various types of bystanders: 


Bystanders who assist will usually bully the victim, and will take joy in bullying.

These people enjoy being in these situations because they find taunting the victim to be very entertaining.

Additionally, bullying the victim distracts them from taking action and helping the victim.

It also lessens the responsibility that they would feel to stop the perpetrator from harming someone in danger. 


Bystanders who reinforce the situation enable the bad behavior to continue.

Not only do they actively bully the victim but they also support the bully in every way possible.

They are often entertained by watching the perpetrator taunt the victim. The reinforcer is thoroughly entertained by watching the victim suffer.


Outsiders don’t actively play a part in bullying the victim, but they do stand by and watch the person getting bullied.

Watching someone get hurt without doing anything to help is also very wrong and does nothing to help de escalate the situation.

Additionally, the more that bystanders act as outsiders, the more they unconsciously do to increase the bystander effect.

They also silently provoke the bully into continuing to torture the victim. 


These people try their best to help and comfort the victim.

Defenders also help try and console the victim as opposed to standing by and watching a bad situation become worse.

The defenders take action in making sure the victim gets to a safer place and that the bully is no longer in a position of power to keep hurting the person in danger.  

Passive defenders:

Passive defenders are not involved in any of the above scenarios, but they do connect with the victim on an emotional level.

Although they do not console the victim and they don’t encourage the victim, they feel empathy for the victim.

A passive defender would like to help the victim, but they do not actively do anything to try and stop the victim from getting hurt. 

There can be several reasons that the bystanders are not helping the victim.

Based on survey results, people who responded stated the following:

  • They are concerned for their own safety and they don’t want the culprit to harm them. This encourages them to keep watching the perpetrator instead of taking action. 
  • They are unsure as to what to do in the situation they’re observing, so they remain observant instead of taking action.
  • They are afraid that they’ll be made fun of for taking action and stopping the perpetrator. This leaves the bystander fearful and in a position to not do anything to help the victim. 

Bystanders should play a vital role in stopping a crime rather than watching it. This is easier said than done and required a massive cultural shift in how society view bystanders.

Furthermore, bystanders could actually be fined $1,000 for not doing something to proactively stop someone from getting hurt.

The bystander effect is widespread, existing in every country, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn to stop the bystander effect.

In short, more of us should step up to help someone and not be a bystander when we see that someone is in danger. 

FAQs on the Bystander Effect:

How does social media have an impact on the bystander effect?

Social media has undoubtedly made the bystander effect worse.

Technology has allowed people to film victims in dangerous situations and share them to social media without actually taking any action.

This encourages people to collectively be bystanders, encourages the perpetrator and places the victim in an even more vulnerable situation.

How can you help someone in trouble if it is not safe to intervene?

If you’re in a situation where it is physically unsafe to intervene, one thing that you can do is call emergency services to intervene in the situation.

You can also call upon friends to try and encourage the perpetrator to stop this behavior and to get the victim away from the person inflicting harm as quickly and safely as possible.

How can you encourage others to not be bystanders?

Bystander training is becoming a lot more widespread both in workplaces and in schools.

Bystander training is extremely important because it arms individuals with the tools and resources to keep other people safer in dangerous situations. 

Interested in learning more? Check out these books on the Bystander Effect:

Disrupting the Bystander: When #metoo Happens Among Friends

Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels

Why We Act: Understanding the Psychology of Courage and Inaction


  • En.wikipedia.org. 2020. Bystander Effect. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect> [Accessed 17 April 2020].
  • Psychologytoday.com. 2020. Bystander Effect | Psychology Today. [online] Available at: <https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/basics/bystander-effect> [Accessed 17 April 2020].

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