Role of the Bystander

“They never sought to inform themselves of what had happened. One encounters not a flat denial of the existence of the camps, only an indifference to their presence so long ago. In some instances one may not talk of forgetfulness, for one cannot forget what one has never attempted to know.”

American historian Gordon Horwitz’s description of the response of villagers who lived around the Mauthausen concentration camp

“An eighty-one year old Afrikaner lady from Bredasdorp, who had been loyal to the National Party all her life, responded to the growing impact of the stories told by victims (at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission) by commenting, ‘I did not know that my people could have done such terrible things’.”

Quoted by Charles Villa-Vicencio

“You can’t let people in need down. You can’t turn the back to people who need your help. There must be some sort of decency in a man’s life and that wouldn’t have been decent to turn the back. So there’s no question of why or why not. You just did….”

Preben Munch-Nielson, who at 17 was one of many Danes who smuggled Jews to safety during WWII


The role of the bystander is highly significant. Resistance by even one person can have a large impact on others and encourage those with doubts to step forward.  In Milgram’s well-known obedience study, where ordinary people were asked by a legitimate authority to give a gradually-increasing electric shock to a “student”  each time he answered a question incorrectly, groups proved to be the most obedient. But, when dissent occurred within a group, obedience fell from 93% to 10%. (Stafford in The Ecologist 33.5)

From bullying in schools to genocide, active bystanders can make a significant difference. Even the Nazis were influenced by opposition: they did not force the Bulgarian government to hand over its Jewish population when the people protested in the streets and shifted course when faced with opposition to their program of euthanizing the mentally ill or chronically ill in Germany (Staub 1989) Bystander passivity, though, has a reverse effect and can contribute to the escalation of violence by shaping social norms and helping to confirm to the perpetrators that they are acting legitimately.

Most of us, if not all of us, have in some way been passive bystanders to someone’s suffering — whether it is to someone in our community or from across the world. Psychologists have recognized the bystander effect, where the presence of others reduces the likelihood that we will intervene to help, in part because of a decreased sense of personal responsibility.  Many have emphasized that the primary difference between those who engage in destructive violence or remain passive in its wake and those who try to intervene is one’s capacity to empathize with those being victimized and to feel a shared humanity.  Sociologist Stanley Cohen, author of an interesting work, Stages of Denial,  has described those who intervened to be a witness or protector as having extensity — “being more likely to attach themselves to others, to assume responsibility for them and to act inclusively towards a wide range of people” (2001: 263). He also emphasizes that people who intervene typically explain their actions as ordinary, something anyone would do in a similar position. This leads to a key point: while the perpetrators of violence may be ordinary, so are those who help others, even when risking their own lives. 

A recent study by two researchers from Harvard University, Nancy Briton and Jennifer Leaning, analyzed thousands of hours of interviews with residents of 12 war-torn regions collected by the International Committee of the Red Cross. What surprised the researchers were the many unsolicited references to acts of kindness and altruism performed by strangers. Analyzing the interviews further, the researchers concluded that four factors accounted for such actions: a sense that their contribution would make a difference, a hope for reciprocity, sometimes expressed as treating someone the way they would want to be treated, a sense of group affiliation, which could be defined narrowly or broadly to cover all human beings, and a desire to reclaim their humanity in the midst of war (Marsh in The Compassionate Instinct, 2010).

All of us, to some degree, are bystanders to human suffering and it is all too easy for us to deny our connections to others. It is however the often unexpected emotional response that stops us in our tracks. In 2004, the Israeli Minister of Justice, Yosef Lapid, caused an uproar when he questioned the government’s plans to demolish thousands of Palestinian homes near the Egyptian border. He had been affected by what he had seen on the evening news: “When I saw a picture on the TV of an old woman on all fours in the ruins of her home looking under some floor tiles for her medicine, I did think, ‘What would I say if it were my grandmother?” (de Waal in The Compassionate Instinct, 2010: 23) 

Denial, though, is a incredibly common response, one that can be protective, but one that greatly facilitates violence, whether it is the perpetrators who deny that their victims are part of humanity or convince themselves that they deserve their treatment or the bystanders who “look the other way”. Psychologist Robert Lifton has spent a career examining the impact of ordinary psychological mechanisms, including denial, on historical events, by either contributing to atrocities or allowing the victims to survive their ordeals. He also stresses the role of language in shutting down our empathy. The language of war, for example, is replete with euphamisms — collateral damage and clean bombs are just few.  In one particularly revealing example, Lifton refers to a researcher  reviewing tens of thousands of pages of Nazi documents and finding only one reference to killing — an edict concerning dogs (Lifton 1986: 445).


 Read Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh’s article, “We are all Bystanders”  , to examine research on the bystander effect and how we can educate people to be more likely to intervene


have a look at Keltner, Marsh and Smith’s 2010 book The Compassionate Instinct for many thought-provoking and student-accessible chapters on the latest research on human goodness.

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