From Feeling to Doing: Overcoming the Bystander Effect

Over the last few weeks, there’s been a flood of commentary, outrage, and too-little-too-late actions over the sexual abuse scandals at Penn State, and the charges issued against former Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky. What each successive firing has proved is that the physical acts themselves are not the only crimes committed. They are compounded by the intentional negligence and outright cover-ups perpetrated by everyone from the janitorial staff to the local police force to those at the highest levels of the university administration.

The cases of abuse may be attributed to the lone perversions of one man. But the negligence of many is, unfortunately, another example of the all-too-common Bystander Effect.

Earlier this month, 18-year-old Ashley Billasano committed suicide, following six hours in which she sent 144 Tweets, exposing a history of sexual abuse and her immediate plans to take her own life. No one said anything.

It's possible that her Tweets weren't read or heard; perhaps they were drowned out in the unceasing stream of information and updates, or maybe none of her 500-plus followers were tuned into Twitter during that timespan. But it's just as possible that someone was there.

We'd like to say that had we been in the bystanders’ shoes, we would have done differently: We would have intervened, we would have stood up, rather than assume someone else was on the case. Yet the comments of Assistant Coach Mike McCreary (who, as a graduate student, walked in on Sandusky raping a minor in the showers), suggests the Bystander Effect is not merely the result of apathy—as is commonly thought—but of paralysis.

Feeling, indeed, is only the first step. Moral judgments and decision-making come when feeling is combined with assertiveness. As any person involved in advocacy will tell you, our famous lack of engagement with issues outside our backyard—or even inside, as this case reveals— is as much the result of a sense of fear or a lack of personal efficacy as it is of blatant uncaring.

And so the response to the Bystander Effect is not to blame the moral corruption of those who sat idly by, even though that may be part of it. The stronger answer is to arm people with the tools they need to intervene, and a fundamental belief that their actions matter.

The good news? That may not be as difficult as we think. Around the world, individuals and organizations are taking on some of the most horrific and potentially paralyzing issues of our day, and giving people the tools they need to make a profound difference.

When Cindy Blackstock founded Canada’s First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, she set out to tackle an issue that has troubled the country for 200 years—one that prime ministers, government agencies, and scores of service organizations had failed to adequately address.

"An error I have made in the past, and one I still see commonly occurring amongst NGOs," said Blackstock, "is that we go up to citizens and say, 'This is the situation and isn’t it horrible?' And yes it was, but we give no way for citizens to engage; or if we do, it’s 'Make a donation." That suggestion inherently ties personal efficacy to wealth.

Cindy laid out seven free ways for any individual—young or old, First Nations or non-aboriginal, educated or not—to make a difference, ranging from acting as youth ambassadors to signing petitions and effecting policy change. Children have written letters to the UN; they have put on performances and art shows; they have organized marches.

Together, they have won policy victories, ensuring that no First Nations child can be denied proper medical and personal care due to federal arguments over jurisdictional funding for health services, and raised national and international attention around an array of human rights violations against Canada’s Aboriginal population.

Similarly, Mark Hanis was a college student when he founded Genocide Intervention Network. Building on the work of the human rights community—known for its lengthy reports on shocking abuses—he provides students with the tools to more effectively advocate and fundraise to prevent genocide.

His technology-driven platform includes the world’s first anti-genocide hotline. It connects callers directly to their Congressional representatives, creating a response network capable of acting swiftly and strategically when genocide occurs. Their efforts led to the Sudan Divestment and Accountability Act in 2007, and marked improvements in the voting records of more than 270 Congressional representatives and senators in terms of genocide prevention legislation.

“Empathy to me is not just having a sense of interest in, and regard for, other people: it’s taking your understanding of another and putting it into action for the common good,” Blackstock explained.

It is impossible to predict what we would do until actually faced with a decision to act or to look on. But it seems reasonable to say that once you’ve had a hand in putting an end to genocide, or in delivering child welfare services to 160,000 First Nations children, you might have a stronger inclination to act on other injustices you come across.

Photo via Mike Ponce Photography