Bystander effect

A social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim as more people are present. Several factors contribute to the bystander effect, including ambiguity, cohesiveness and diffusion of responsibility [Wikipedia]


As a Black female engineer I was often the only female and usually the only black person. In my first project a middle-aged white guy at one of our suppliers screamed at me in a meeting for making a suggestion (not raise his voice... scream), telling me I had no idea what I was talking about. He didn't speak to anyone else on my engineering team that way even though we were all in agreement. I was so shocked I froze.  

A male colleague stepped in, there on the spot, and told him it was an inappropriate way to address anyone on our team. He then reinforced his agreement with my assessment. The strongest form of allyship was that he was able to address it immediately as opposed to just feeling uncomfortable and not speaking up and waiting to handle the damage on both sides later. I appreciated his respect and support, especially since I had no idea how to defend myself in that moment.

Facts and Data

  • Researchers have posited three main reasons why the bystander effect occurs: the diffusion of responsibility; social referencing, the tendency to see how others behave and act accordingly; and simple shyness. [nymag]

  • One study showed that even 5-year-olds succumb to the bystander effect. When asked to help an adult clean up a spill, almost all children did when alone, but only 50% did as the number of 5-year-old bystanders increased. [nymag]

Take Action

  • Trainings and knowledge of the necessity of a proactive stance has been shown to reduce bystander effect. Even discussing with colleagues how you might approach different scenarios can make a big impact

  • Become more aware of this phenomenon, and encourage your office to get trained