Animated illustration of three people sitting on public transit. The man in the middle has headphones in and is looking at his phone, but looks to his left towards loud yelling.

Illustrations by Louise Reimer

How to fight off the bystander effect

Here’s your script for safely and effectively defusing a public harassment

Imagine this: You’re on a bus heading home from work, and an elderly man is hurling racial slurs at a hijab-clad teenager standing across from him.

Say it’s just you, the man and the teenager. You might step in to help, preventing the situation from escalating.

But if you’re on a packed bus? Well, it’s common to see commuters turn their heads the other way, pretending not to hear or see what’s happening.

You may think, “Surely, I’d do something…” After all, it’s easy to picture ourselves intervening. But when we’re faced with a real-life situation, we often don’t—especially if there are other people around.

Wait, really? You bet. It’s a behavioural habit called the bystander effect. Jeffrey Robinson, a post-doctoral research fellow in social psychology at the University of Toronto, describes it as “the tendency people have to not respond to a victim in need when other people are around.” In fact, having a larger number of witnesses to a negative event—such as sexual assault, physical injury or a verbal altercation—reduces the likelihood of any one person stepping in to help. (We usually witness the bystander effect when someone is verbally abusing another person in public.)

What about the man who was rescued after falling onto the TTC tracks? That’s a feel-good example of what happens when bystanders become good Samaritans. On June 29, 2018, a blind man fell off the edge of the platform at Broadview Station and onto the tracks. Three men jumped down and hoisted him back up to safety. These three witnesses overcame the bystander effect and put themselves in the path of danger to help someone in need.

Think of prehistoric times. At least, that’s how Annahid Dashtgard, co-founder of Anima Leadership, describes it. She leads bystander intervention workshops in Toronto for businesses and groups, teaching participants how to help when a disturbing incident occurs. “We are wired to be like prehistoric creatures,” says Dashtgard. “When anything happens that disturbs the norm in social settings, there’s a collective gasp of fear that everybody feels. People go into this frozen state, and it is very difficult to break out of that.”

Does that mean we’re all bad people? Not necessarily. “I really believe the majority of folks want to do the right thing, but lack the confidence and the skills to step in,” says Dashtgard. That’s where picking up some bystander intervention tips can help the next time you encounter overt discrimination in public.

Illustration of a woman holding a red umbrella and yelling at another woman who is looking away

So, what can I do? First, you can stay safe. Look at what’s happening. If you’re outnumbered or in an isolated situation, or if the perpetrator has a weapon or the altercation has gotten physical, do not step in and put yourself in harm’s way. Get help immediately. Robinson says the bystander effect happens, in part, because it helps us assess potentially dangerous situations—so it’s important not to ignore this instinct.

Shift your stance. If you feel safe, there are some basic tactics that could change the situation. Attempting simple, subtle gestures and body postures can be effective, according to Dashtgard. Try moving to stand next to the victim or, if you are comfortable, standing between them and their aggressor.

Engage with the victim. One way to accomplish this is to start chatting with the victim. Say you’re on that public bus from our first example; you could ask the teen if they’d like to stand next to you or sit up at the front of the bus with you. You could also jump in with an unrelated query, like asking for the time or directions, talking about the weather or complimenting them on something they’re wearing.

And remember: Be an ally, not a superhero. Now that you’re armed with the confidence to intervene, you might be eager to make use of your new skills. But before you jump in to help, pause for a moment, assess the safety of the situation and see whether the victim might be ready to defend themselves. “We can be partners with the person that’s been targeted rather than just swooping in,” says Dashtgard.

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