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What prevents people from helping those in distress in public places?

Any act of terror in a public place is usually followed by a series of pictures and videos being distributed across social media channels. And that invites two kinds of comments: one, that is self-righteous and questions the lack of attempt from the person responsible for filming the event; and the second, that appreciates the attempt, crediting his/her the presence of mind in salvaging something off a fleeting moment.

The question of which group is right shouldn’t bother us as long as we are interested in the larger questions which are:

  1. How do we prevent such incidents from happening again?
  2. How to best help the situation that requires every bit of information to track down the perpetrators of the crime?

Here are some popular theories that have, over the years, tried to explain the increasing ‘dehumanisation’ and apathy, especially when confronted with a situation, involving a lot of strangers,  that requires their intervention.

Bystander effect

We become a different animal when we are in group. Our thought process, words, actions, sense of right and wrong (insert any adjective and its opposite) undergo a complete change when we are under the influence of a group. There is an increased resistance to practise our ideas, an inertia that very rarely helps us bring out the core of ourselves. The group becomes an organism, filled with people who share a common line of thought. And it works for the individual– it comforts the individual, helping her/him seek security in numbers — providing constant reinforcements for the ideas that she/he believes in.

Now, let’s look at a situation — one that involves a gruesome incident and people hesitating to offer help. In this case, intervention is associated with costs such as fear of misinterpreting or the risk of eliciting a negative response from the perpetrator and non-intervention is associated with guilt.

The answer lies in understanding the concept of bystanders effect and one of the key areas it tries to address is how responsibility is shared in a group. A simple math shows that lesser the number of people, higher the chances of a person taking the initiative — if you’re the only person, the onus is on you to act whereas when there are 20 people, the percentage of responsibility shared by you is reduced to five per cent. Under normal circumstances, it is safe to assume that higher the number of people, lesser the sense of responsibility shared by individuals. This diffusion of responsibility was first demonstrated by Latane and Darley in their study which showed that presence of other people decreases our willingness to help a victim in an emergency situation.

I say normal circumstances because generalization doesn’t help. As this study published in European Journal of Social Psychology points out, “when individuals feel personally implicated and have the impression that it is their personal duty to intervene, the bystander effect disappears. Note, however, that the feeling of being personally implicated does not affect people’s reactions when they are alone.”

There are exceptions but this theory explains our inaction and understanding it is the first step in helping the situation. By being aware of the phenomenon, we can decide to step away from the routine and try to go one-up over others.

That brings us to the next concept, that of

Social inhibition

There are two necessary conditions for this to occur: the person must believe that she/he is being watched by others; and they believe that if there’s no positive outcome off her/his actions, there will be negative evaluation. We seek positive reinforcements, a sense of security that feeds on itself to become a part of our character or personality. And we dread negative reinforcements — reactions that will considerably reduce the chances of us performing the same action again.

So what are the possible negative reinforcements here? Fear of retribution? Money? Our commitments and smooth routine going for a toss? There’s no denying that these factors heavily tilt the balance and rightly so.

But where is the solution? It lies in understanding how our minds work and most of what we feel as opinions are actually causing the delay in addressing the problem.

An individual — a centre of ideas and thoughts — is heavily influenced by his environment. Most of what the person imagines herself or himself to be are a product of this very influence. So every act is a way of seeking reinforcements from others, which is to say, under normal circumstances, it is impossible for a person to act as an individual in a setting involving many people.  If we realize this, the task of overcoming social inhibition becomes a lot easier as each person is made to believe that negative outcomes are normal — there’s no stick, only the carrot.

The Good Samaritan Law is a start. It is aims to protect the interests of ‘good samaritans’ — those who help road accident victims. Now, how do we remove the other negative outcomes?

We need laws to intervene and tell us what’s right and wrong. And, they only work to an extent.

Do social media outrages help?

Every outrage adds to an opinion that, irrespective of which side it takes, only manages to polarize the environment. It doesn’t help in people understanding the whys but focuses on the whats and the specifics — which only manages to help entities hijack them for self-interests. Our opinions help in building social institutions that can shape the moral compass of a society. And, with the advent of social media, this process of institutionalizing what is good, bad, moral, humane has only lead to debates that is divisive, losing focus on the larger interests.

In such an environment,  people are more conscious of their standing in the society. Their ideas of themselves are solidified to an extent that it becomes very difficult to shake them off themselves. And, outrages are a means to tell themselves of their own standing — on which side of the debate are they in. It has come to point where the side they take matters more than the problem itself.

It doesn’t help the situation at all. It only shifts the goalpost.  Blame is a product of hindsight and does very little to help the situation. In most cases it is an exercise of a mind that is trying to connect the dots in haste, not for want of long-term solutions but for immediate relief.

Also read: How clicking pictures helps us enjoy moments better


  1. The bystander effect and social control behavior: the effect of the presence of others on people’s reactions to norm violations, by PEGGY CHEKROUN AND MARKUS BRAUER.
  2. Crowded Minds: The Implicit Bystander Effect, by Stephen M. Garcia and Kim Weaver, Gordon B. Moskowitz and John M. Darley

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