The Samaritan Bystander


Have you ever come across situations where people have just stood by and witnessed something tragic without doing anything about it? This situation has a name – the ‘Bystander’s Effect’. It is probably one of the most common social occurrences in every society. It is believed to be caused by the diffusion of responsibility. This diffusion is nothing but a psychosocial phenomenon wherein, an individual is less likely to take responsibility for an action (or inaction) when there are other humans present in the scenario. In other words, the individual assumes that somebody else would be responsible for taking action (or have already done so).

Bibb Latané and John Darley, two important social psychologists, popularized this concept following the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment in New York while bystanders who observed the crime did not step in to assist or call the police. Latané and Darley attributed the bystander effect to the perceived diffusion of responsibility (onlookers are more likely to intervene if there are few or no other witnesses) and social influence (individuals in a group monitor the behaviour of those around them to determine how to act). In Genovese's case, each onlooker (probably) concluded from their neighbours’ inaction that their own personal help was not needed.

There are many who state that the Jewish Holocaust under the Nazi Regime was an atrocious example of the Bystander’s Effect. Concentration camps were built within miles of large towns and cities, whose residents could not have overlooked the injustice meted out to Jewish families. However, none of them intervened nor questioned the government’s tactics. Germans and Nazi officers who were later tried for their involvement in the Holocaust, argued that it was not their responsibility to report it to the authorities. While some assumed that if the Holocaust was as serious as some journalists had reported, then someone else would step forward to put an end to it, others simply retorted that they were following orders.

Sometimes in life when we turn a blind eye to the reality, to be mere spectators, we allow atrocities to happen in our watch. This is the point where we need to step in and be the one to make the difference – like a Samaritan bystander. A Samaritan bystander would not be a mere spectator but would rather step in to make the difference that is required at that point of time. Each one of us has the power and courage to rise as a Samaritan bystander, to stand up against injustice – to make the world a better place.


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