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Why people don't act.

This article is provided by 'Graham Goulden. Cultivating Minds UK.'


The inaction of bystanders is often the subject of media stories.  The silence of our fellow human beings makes a good headline especially when another human is being harmed.  In many ways bad news sells a story, it helps communicate how bad an issue is.  Bad news is what people talk about.


The fact is that bystander inaction is not inevitable.  Some people, despite risk, do step up.  In my opinion we can learn much from these active bystanders.



A story published this week talked about a man who raped a woman on a train in the presence of passengers.  The outcry from many focused a lot of attention on the presence of “bystanders” and their inaction.  It’s becoming clear that multiple bystanders were present. The reality is that only a father who was with his young son reported this to the police. 

Why didn’t others act? Could they have done more?  Could the father have done more. Many will say he could have, even he should have, however it’s important to recognise that many psychosocial factors play out in these types of cases. Its these factors that require more attention rather than simply demanding more action.


In 2017, in Philadelphia, a woman was raped by a man in a train carriage.  On this occasion the carriage was full.  No one did anything, not even a call to the police was made.

Most of us like to think we are good people who would step up in the face of such events.  The reality is somewhat different.  Many don’t act.  If we are to help people do the right thing, we must better understand why they don’t. 


No one wants to overreact. The first step is to figure out what’s going on.  This can, depending on events, be complicated. Social psychologists have consistently found that people are far more willing to act in the case of a clear emergency than when they find themselves in an ambiguous situation. Inaction in ambiguous situations is driven by what psychologists call evaluation apprehension, a term used to describe anxiety caused by fear our behaviour will be judged by others.  Getting it wrong has for years been a fear for many.

Evaluation apprehension helps explain why fewer people act when they see a fight between a man and a woman when they believe they are watching a couple arguing, whereas more people intervene when they believe they are watching a fight between strangers.

The Perils of Ambiguity may help explain why nobody intervened on the train in Philadelphia and why few people act when they witness sexual harassment on trains and buses.


When facing an ambiguous situation, our natural tendency is to look to others to figure out what’s going on. But there’s a problem isn’t there? If each person is looking to the people around them to figure out what to do, and no one wants to be seen as the person who overreacts, who goes first, the person in need might receive no help at all. In other words, inaction breeds inaction. 


This issue with ambiguous situations has been simplified by many and called the “Bystander Effect”. The challenge with this term firstly is its too simplistic to describe inaction is down to the inaction of others.  The term fails to explore the issue of ambiguity and importantly it fails to address the genuine fear that many have when in such situations.  It’s too easy to say inaction in groups is down to simply “No one else”.


There’s another factor that may well explain what happens in such situations. Even in an obvious emergency, it can be hard to intervene if we think that doing so could pose a significant or even life-threatening risk to us. Before deciding to act, most people conduct a subconscious cost-benefit analysis. If the benefits outweigh the costs, we help. But if the costs outweigh the benefits, we don’t.  It’s a simple choice.  Silence will always be an option for bystanders when the costs are clear. 


The man with his son maybe saw too much risk to intervene directly.  What would you do if you had a child with you?  Remember the father did something.


In towns and cities where violent crime is common and reported in the media this plays out in the minds of those around an event.  Past research suggests that intervention is more likely in affluent areas as opposed to areas less so.  Even in more densely populated areas intervention is less likely.  The bad news focus plays out here.  When fear is raised the opportunity for intervention is decreased. 


As I said at the star bystander inaction is not inevitable: Some people do step up, even when the stakes are high.  Research suggests people are more likely to intervene having received good quality training.  This aligns with medical emergencies where those trained in First Aid are more likely to help – they have the tools, the efficacy to act.  Training increases bystanders’ feelings of responsibility to act as well as confidence that they can do so effectively. Knowing what to do and how to do it is a good start.   


Other motivators exist which tie into the theme of having a responsibility to act.  Empathy motivates action.  I would suggest those who said they would have done something in the train incident have experienced similar harm or work in the prevention sector.  We know such people have that need to help.  They have been there, and no one helped them.

Tapping into your moral compass is also a good motivator.  Research on those who have intervened identifies an inner self confidence.  A person who is truly in touch with themselves.  They use their values, believes, experiences to motivate them to act.

The last big motivator is a culture where intervention is normalised, expected, and supported. 

Community in person trainings help build this support.  The use of E-Learning trainings or short trainings don’t really spend time building this sense of unity.  Believe me when I say it’s worth investing in.


Third parties witness the build up an event, the event itself as well as the aftermath.  Rather than being critical of non-action those involved in prevention must acknowledge the reasons why people don’t act.  The motivators i discuss above help reduce the fear. When you reduce the fear you increase the likelihood that intervention will happen.


I want to imagine a society where people were able to notice harm, saw a responsibility to act and knew what to do to stop further harm.  If we don’t engage and activate bystanders, we fail not just victims but the bystanders as well.

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