True Talk With Temper: Breaking The Bystander Effect

Krystal “Temper” Marx Washington Initiative (WAI)

As Real Life Super Heroes (RLSH), concerned citizens, HUMANS… it’s our job to look out for one another. I’ve found that it’s an easy thing to say, and even commit to, but what does it actually look like? What skills do you need? How do you know what to look for? How do you know when to step in? Well, friends, you’ve come to the right place!

As the leader of the Washington Initiative (WAI) in Seattle, I put together a training on how to say something when you see something going down, and how to do that in a way that most helps the person in trouble (without making things worse).

Seems logical, right?
Unfortunately, when we’re in those situations (seeing someone getting yelled at on the train, someone pulling a woman’s hijab from off her head, someone harassing a woman on the street), the tendency can be to freeze and not know what to do… and that tendency is even worse if there are other people nearby.

This is called the “Bystander Effect”.

The Bystander Effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present.

In other words, it’s when the phrase “See Something, Say Something” fails to work.

As I mentioned, this effect is actually worse when we’re in a crowd of people. When there are four or more people who are bystanders to an emergency situation, the likelihood that at least one of them will help is just 31%… while it will be 85% of people if they were alone / thought they were alone (

At Ohio State University, college students in a waiting room heard a tape recording that simulated the sounds of a woman climbing on a chair to reach some papers. She fell, injured her ankle, calling out for help. It was reported that 70% of people offered help if they were alone, but only 20% did so when waiting with other people in the room.

One of the most famous cases of this is the story of Kitty Genovese, a lesbian woman who was murdered in New York in 1964; she was attacked two separate times (by the same attacker) over the course of 30 minutes in the parking lot and again in the lobby of her apartment building, and only one person called the police despite 12 people hearing or seeing various parts of the attack. In the end, someone did come out to help her, but Kitty died en route to the hospital. Her murderer, when asked why he would dare to attack a woman in front of so many witnesses, said: “I knew they wouldn’t do anything. People never do.”

As an RLSH, that should enrage you.

So, what do we do about it?

  1. Note what you’re seeing.
  • Is the person being targeted in a highly-targeted group?
    • What is their race? Do they present as a target religion? Are they female? What’s their approximate age?
  1. Know what you are already comfortable doing, and be realistic about it.
  • Can you film the situation, if you’re not comfortable stepping in?
  • Can you ask others to help?
  • Can you step in directly, effectively and safely?
  1. Recruit others near you to help.
  3. Focus on the person being targeted, and getting them to safety.
  4. If you have to address the attacker, do so in a way to de-escalate the situation.

In the training I provide, we walk through examples how to intervene, based on people’s comfort level as well as what the situation might call for. If you have questions, or want to see the training materials, reach out to me!

Stay Safe, Heroes.

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