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The Bystander Effect: Intro Psych Can Change Lives

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In 1989, the woman I was dating and I walked out of a Kansas City gay bar at midnight. We had to cross a fairly desolate four-lane boulevard to get to my car. There were no crosswalks, and the nearest cross-streets were ¼ to ½ mile in either direction. There was no traffic coming from the left; from the right, there were three cars some distance away. We started across. She decided to stop midway and wait for them to pass. I jogged across. As I was putting my key in the car door, something caught my attention. I turned in time to see a pickup truck come from the previously-no-traffic left, move into the left lane, and hit her – intentionally. The driver continued to accelerate; the brake lights never flashed. Witnesses later reported that the truck had pulled out from the parking lot behind a nearby not-gay bar.

I ran to where she lay in the street. The truck’s bumper had caught her on the hip and she did a helicopter spin and landed flat, dispersing the energy across her entire body, instead of, say, just her head taking the brunt of the pavement. It is better to keep injured people where they are, unless it’s more dangerous to do so. On a very dark boulevard with oncoming traffic, I decided it was better for us to be on the sidewalk. I looked toward the bar we came from to discover that a group of people had gathered.  I issued a general call for help. No one moved. I thought, “The bystander effect!”

Jumping ahead to 2015, on Friday, December 11th during the very busy morning commute on a freeway here in the Greater Puget Sound Area, a public transportation bus with only a driver onboard traveling along with traffic displayed a disturbing message: “HELP! CALL 911.” (Full article here.)

There were hundreds of drivers on the road, which suggests not many would call because of diffusion of responsibility. We also don’t know how many saw the message. But the help message didn’t ask for a big intervention or time commitment: Just call 911.

The article reports that “several” people called.  One of whom was Robert Rode.  The article ends with:

Rode figured Friday’s display was a false alarm because the bus was traveling normally, but said he “wasn’t going to be a victim of the bystander effect and not call 911.”

I don’t know if Robert Rode took Intro Psych, but given the popularity of the course, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that that is where he learned about the bystander effect. I tell my students, “Now that you know how the bystander effect works, you have a moral obligation to help. You don’t have to personally jump in and participate, but there is no reason you can’t call 911.”

As for my 1989 self, I knew from the bystander effect research how to break the spell. I identified one person and asked for something specific: “You in the red sweatshirt! Go in and call 911!” As predicted, his fellow bystanders turned and looked at him. He was no longer a bystander, but a part of the action. Sure enough, he immediately went in and asked the bartender to make the call. His friends, now feeling involved by being connected to him, came out to the street and helped me move her to the sidewalk.

I contend that Intro Psych is one of the most important courses we have in our curriculum. What we teach in that course not only has the potential to improve lives, but to save lives.

Epilogue: She spent a few days in the hospital just badly bruised. To my knowledge the perpetrator was never apprehended.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.