Would you be a hero?

“This is a great example of the police & public working together to stop crime”

The words of Detective Inspector Karl Ward of Greater Manchester Police after a group of men interrupted a suspected rape of a 17-year-old girl in a car park in Ashton Under Lyne earlier this week. The men allegedly chased the suspect, before detaining him, allowing police to make an arrest.

It was good to see these actions being praised, but it made me wonder why we don’t hear this more often. Why is it unusual for people to intervene when an offence is taking place, or even just when someone is exhibiting poor behaviour?

What we do see are videos of social interactions gone wrong. Videos in which people hurl racial slurs, or misogynistic diatribes at others on crowded tube trains, packed aeroplanes or busy streets. We see that the event is being filmed by a few others; there is clearly an awareness that the behaviours exhibited are unacceptable, yet rarely do we see somebody stepping forward to put a stop to it.

I think we’d all like to believe that if that moment presented itself, we would be the hero. That we’d call out the bad behaviour and stop someone being harassed or abused in a public space. However, until you find yourself in that position, it’s hard to say exactly what you would do. The evidence, and many psychologists, suggest that most of us would, sadly, actually do very little.

This is due to a phenomenon called the “bystander effect”, a term that was coined by researchers Darley and Latané in the 60’s after they studied the murder of Kitty Genovese – a 28 year old girl who was stabbed outside her home in New York in 1964. An article at the time in the New York Times reported that although 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack, none of them called the police or came to Kitty’s aid. Darley and Latané’s subsequent study showed that the more witnesses there are to an “incident” the less likely any one individual is to take action. Put simply, our human instinct is that in a busy social situation, we perceive a “diffusion of responsibility” believing that someone else will intervene.

Of course, there may be other factors at play, particularly in extreme cases where we believe intervention will put our own safety at risk. However, history has shown the bystander effect to be demonstrably real.

So, what can we do about it?

Just as the first part of overcoming addiction is to accept that there is a problem, the first step on the road to becoming an active bystander is to accept that the bystander effect has agency over our decisions when these situations arise. Just blindly believing that we would valiantly challenge poor behaviour leaves us prone to the bystander effect. We must accept that we may not want to intervene, because having that knowledge will allow us to resist that initial response.

The situations in which one may need to be an active bystander are challenging. They are emotionally-charged, upsetting, and scary. Intervention of course requires courage, but it also requires level-headedness, emotional intelligence, and an unswerving conviction in what you believe to be right.

By becoming an active bystander in that moment, you will also give others the courage to stand up for what they believe to be right, empowering them to take their share of social responsibility. Because despite all our political and social differences, when it comes to the treatment of others, most of us share an innate sense of right and wrong. By being aware of our psychological instincts, we can allow ourselves to be the hero of the moment that we all hope to be.

We will be exploring some things you can do to be an active bystander in greater detail, but here are some ways you can take action:

-Call it out – if it’s safe to do so call out the perpetrator then and there and tell them their behaviour is not ok

-Get help – inform somebody else with the power or social authority so they can get involved

-Empathise and engage – ask the victim if they’re ok and if they need your help. Or, distract them by engaging with them

-Report it – report the incident so that organisations and individuals can make changes.