Bullying and the Bystander Effect

Never A Hero Around When You Need One

There are a huge number of anti-bullying programs being instituted in our schools based on very flawed theories.

Central  to these programs is the magical thinking that clever slogans featured on posters and wrist-bands and entertaining assemblies with plays and puppet shows actually do any good at all.  Another laughable core idea these programs share is the idea that teachers have the ability to play “case investigator” or discern which interactions constitute bullying – and then have inclination to stop everything they’re doing to write a report on each incident.

Another common thread is the idea that peer-abuse can be stopped by ‘deputizing’ witnesses to stand up and intervene. This idea is so defective that only the intellectual elite (or the government) could support it. Here’s why:

Diffusion Of Responsibility or “The Bystander Effect” – One person is likely to assist someone who clearly needs help.  In a group, (3 or more) no one person feels it’s their job to take action (Darley & Latane did the first lab experiments on this in 1968).  In groups, our individual judgment is subsumed; we monitor others for their reaction, and figure that if they deem the situation is serious,some one else will step forward.  If no one takes initiative, that’s enough social proof to justify our inaction.

Schadenfreude –  Defined as “taking pleasure from the misfortune of another”. Yes, its unattractive.  Yes, we’ve all been guilty at some time or another.  A witness to a bullying spectacle has to come to terms with what they’re seeing.  If they see an innocent or helpless person being tormented, then they have to accept that by doing nothing, they’re cowards at least, or even complicate. If they see the victim as somehow ‘deserving’ or ‘asking for’ bad treatment, then their self-concept as a good person is preserved.  Either way, an observer thinks, “better him than me”.

Fear – The intense emotional state brought on by danger.

  • Fear of Embarrassment from saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Fear of Injury- if they come to the target’s defense, they might incur the aggressors wrath for meddling.
  • Fear of Rejection – their peers might turn on them.  Social stigma, like cooties and viruses are contagious.

In the heat of the moment, when a child is being made fun of, threatened or shunned, its wonderful when a brave soul defies inertia and calls a stop to the abuse. But let’s face it – being courageous isn’t easy. Considering the obstacles and risks, its completely understandable why more children don’t come to the rescue of a classmate who’s being ganged up on.

And while a guardian angel may save a peer from a particular incident of abuse, it doesn’t help the targeted child to develop the tactics and techniques to handle or prevent the next incident.
Hoping that a bystander will become a hero isn’t a success strategy for a kid who’s being bullied.  “Hope” is not a strategy.

For school officials make bystander interventions the foundation of their anti-bullying programs is deplorable.

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3 Comments on “Bullying and the Bystander Effect”

  1. Sarah Says:

    While I agree that the anti bullying programs don’t necessarily work, I disagree with your beliefs that bystanders are “ineffective.” When bystanders are a witness to a crime, they are in essence telling the victim, you deserve it and therefore empowering the bully.

    Research shows that Bystanders may have more power than the victim and the bully. Standing and watching a child being bullied sends the message to the child he/she is not worth it. Which in turn empowers the bully. DCF relies on bystanders to report suspicion of child abuse. The police relies on bystanders to report crime. It is because of these calls from bystanders that many lives have been saved.

    Bystanders don’t have to be heros by jumping into a middle of a fight. They can go get help anonymously They can locate an adult, there are many other things they can do that could have an impact on that targeted child’s life. We need to Teach them other tactics…and to say that a child will not learn the skills he/she needs for the next time it happens if a hero jumps into save them is quite frankly and ignorant statement. A “hero” may be what a child needs to know he/she is not alone and is worthy. Sometimes we all need a hero, we just need to change our definition of what a hero is.


    • Adam Says:

      Thanks for joining the discussion, Sarah.

      To clarify: I strongly advocate intervention in cases of social cruelty, physical altercations, etc. What I’m doing is drawing the distinction between “is” and “ought”. Should we treat others with dignity and kindness? Should we help those in need? Of course. But looking at the last several thousand years of human history, I’m sure you’d agree: you cant count on people being “nice”. Otherwise we wouldn’t need The Golden Rule.

      Having a Life Guard on duty at the beach is a wonderful luxury. I’m just advocating that everyone learn to swim on their own.

    • Tia Says:

      I think that bystanders need to consider helping out in certain situations. Not all because as you said Sarah not all bystanders need to jump in a fight just to help. Bystanders sometimes laugh the child being bullied. It`s just sad to see kids standing there like they are lost instead of getting someone to help out. There would be less bullying in this world if we had bystanders who are heroes

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