Can bystanders stop bullying?

The short answer is yes! Research has found that when a person is prepared to advocate for the target of the bullying and take a stand on their behalf, the bullying behaviour decreases or in fact ends. Witnesses or bystanders are the group with the most power to stop bullying, yet they are notorious for not intervening when they see it happening.

Why are bystanders reluctant to get involved?

A study conducted by the Australian Rights Commission (2012) titled Cyberbullying and the Bystander highlighted some concerning statistics relating to bystanders in schools:

  • 20-30% of students actively assist or reinforce bullying;
  • another 26-30% of students try to stay outside the bullying situation; and
  • less than 20% of students act to stop the bullying and defend the student being bullied.

The study highlighted the power of bystander intervention noting that when students did decide to intervene observational research found that bullying stopped within ten seconds of peer intervention in many cases.

The study noted possible reasons why students were reluctant to intervene including:

  • their desire for peer acceptance;
  • uncertainty about what action to take;
  • fear of becoming the next target of the bullying;
  • lack of knowledge about appropriate strategies to use to intervene;
  • and/or assuming that another observer will take action to stop the situation.

Although the study was confined to school aged individuals some of the reasons bystanders remain passive are also germane to adults, particularly the last point.

A ground-breaking experiment that looked into the role of bystander’s reluctance to intervene was the Bystander Apathy Experiment conducted by Social psychologists, Darley and Latané (1964) in response to the brutal rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York. The murder was committed outside Kitty Genovese’s apartment building. It was reported up to 38 witnesses saw or heard the attack and did not call the police, prompting the now famous experiment by Darley and Latané. As a result of the experiment the term(s) bystander effect and bystander apathy were coined, being a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. They noted several factors contribute to the bystander effect, including ambiguity, cohesiveness and diffusion of responsibility. The last term diffusion of responsibility is phenomenon whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present. Considered a form of attribution, the individual assumes that others either are responsible for taking action or have already done so.

The Australian Human Rights Commission noted a more recent study conducted in 2005 proposing a model relevant to bystander issues in the workplace. The model contains 4 propositions by which a workplace observer will respond to a perceived injustice or violation of a co-worker. Ultimately the study: highlighted bystanders are less likely to be passive when they identify with the bullying target and they are influenced by the organisational environment such as the organisational culture and repercussions for becoming involved.

We thought we would share with you two clips that are great for emphasising the importance of bystander action. You might like to consider these in your internal communications.

This is a 2009 video showing an experiment conducted in London whereby actors pretended to be ill and collapsed in a busy public place while many bystanders walked past without intervening. You will see, the impact of diffusion of responsibility is very strong as people are struggling with two social rules, the first being that they ought to help and the second being they ought to do what everyone else is doing, in this case not helping. In one of the experiments within 4 minutes, 34 people passed without helping, with the first attempt to help taking 20 minutes. Interestingly when the actor was dressed in a business suit and as such appeared to be “part of the group”, it took only 6 seconds for a bystander to intervene, highlighting the likeliness of individuals to react when they identify with the victim. The experiment also clearly highlighted that when one person stopped to help the willingness of others to also stop and help was increased, thus creating a new group norm.

This video also details an experiment conducted in the US, showing the reluctance of bystanders to intervene.

The reasons people are reluctant to intervene in situations such as bullying are complicated and are impacted by the notions of social norms, however the impact of bystanders who become active to stem bullying cannot be ignored. Organisations that actively educate and encourage employees to be ‘Upstanders’ and not bystanders in bullying situations can dramatically impact the prevalence of bullying. The message to employees should be that “everyone has a responsibility” when it comes to workplace bullying. PEEL encourages our clients to include information in relation to bystanders in their policies. Be sure your employees understand ways they can intervene through your grievance policies and procedures. PEEL HR educates on the role of the bystander in our Respectful Workplace programs.

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