The Bystander Effect: Inaction Guaranteed

Written on behalf of the PlushMoney Impact program by Maree Bandrowczak

I am currently a senior at the University of Southern California, studying International Relations Global Business and Psychology. I always get the same ridiculous response from people, upon hearing that I study Psychology and want to end up in business. “Why the f*#k would you waste your time with that?” They all have this perception that psychology is about diagnosing crazy people with crazy pills. But that really couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, I’ve only taken one such course, which actually ended up being a huge mistake-I positively identified with way too many of the topics we covered, and walked out of the class less stable than when I walked in– I’m pretty sure I’m still recovering from a slight case of the Schizophrenias.

The “Soft-Skills”

At its core, Psychology is about people. On a daily basis, I study how to motivate and interact with people, as well as understand and change behaviors. Many people look at these as  “soft-business skills.” But really, the only constant in the business world, today, is that you will have to deal with people, so I’d say these skills are pretty solid. If anything, my Psych studies have really improved my empathy, so my response to these people is usually, “you’re a dumb-ass.”

The next question I usually get asked is, “can you psycho-analyze me?” At this point, I like to start making stuff up-they clearly have issues anyway.

Psychology: Quick & Dirty

Sometimes I get asked, “What’s the most useful tid-bit that you’ve learned?” This is actually a very interesting question, which I didn’t have a solid response to, until last night. I am part of an amazing program, PlushMoney Impact, where a group of 18 women have joined together for the summer to participate in weekly webinars and projects in order to impact each other and others around us. Most of the girls are USC undergrads, so by definition they’re smart, highly motivated, and awesome! And we all take great pride in this community that we have created, but last night something really interesting happened.

During our weekly webinar, one of the members asked, “If one person can find out and post [whether or not the WSJ offers a student discount] on our FB page?” To my surprise no one responded. You have to understand that these girls are jumping through hoops to make this program work, simply because it’s been such an amazing experience. Actually, this blog is one of the products coming out of this project. So, I was pretty shocked when no one offered their assistance, but I was even more shocked at my own inaction. But then it hit me: this is the classic bystander effect. Then I got really excited, because I had both an answer to that question and something to write about!

What is the bystander effect?

In plain Inglés the bystander effect is a social phenomenon in which the more people present in a given situation, the less likely they are to help someone in distress. This phenomenon is usually caused by a diffusion of responsibility amongst those present.  After an initial amount of surprise, this phenomenon actually starts to make sense.

The most famous case of the bystander effect is the Kitty Genovese murder; remember this name-I promise you can slip it into almost any cocktail conversation. In 1964 Kitty was murdered in the back alley of her NYC apartment building, which was heavily occupied at the time of the murder. During the attack, she screamed for help several times, loud enough for her neighbors to hear, yet no one called the police. Social Psychologists later explained this event through the bystander effect.  No, these New Yorkers were not particularly insensitive; they all just assumed that someone else had already called the police. This phenomenon is both unavoidable and universal (what a crappy combination) from murders to group projects, it’s really something to be mindful of the next time you need a hand.

How do you Avoid the Unavoidable: If you need a favor, do not ask a group, approach an individual

 You might think that by bringing your request to a larger group, there are more people to accept and a higher probability of getting the task done. Wrong.  Had that member reached out to me last night and asked if I could call our career center to find out whether or not we got a discount, I would have said, “Sure.” It seriously would have taken me no more than 5 minutes. But instead, she approached the group, and the result was: inaction.  In retrospect, I really should have just made that darn call­­; now I’m stuck writing this post.


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