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Social Psychology

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The bystander effect is a well-known concept in psychology. It is grounded in the fact that bystanders will not react to the person being abused or even killed if they are watching the occurrence as a crowd. The presence of the crowd seems to relieve the person of the accepted responsibility for the benefit of others and promote passivity. This issue can be considered from different perspectives: psychodynamic, behavioral, and cognitive.

Behaviorism attempts to explain all human behaviors in terms of reactions learned from the environment. It downplays the importance of innate factors in the development of an individual character and promotes the role of the environment. A behaviourist can claim that such mode of behavior is the one learned through reinforcement in many cases where a person was presented with a situation when helping others led to a disastrous consequence.

One who has tried to fight against an attacker and was stabbed or beated up as a result will refrain from doing so in the end. On the other hand, behaviorists could say that most individuals have developed an association between the stimulus (such as call for help or sight of a person in distress) and the reaction (going to help this person). In the case of a crowd of people watching over the individual, their presence in some ways breaks this link and prevents action.

Another kind of learned behavior that is obviously involved by the situation is when a person tried to help another one, but was mocked at by others. In teenage groups, for instance, helping the weak one may be considered “uncool”, on the grounds that “tough” guys learn to cope with their problems themselves. If the attacker is a man and the victim is a woman, the observer may take it for a regular family quarrel interference in which is stupid for an outsider. This can happen if the person has observed quarrels with a certain degree of violence before and was advised not to intervene.

The psychodynamic perspective grounded in the works of Sigmund Freud would attempt to attribute the root causes of human behavior to the interplay of the conscious and the unconscious. The person has id, ego, and superego, and they interfere with one’s actions. For example, at the point one comes across a case of a severe attack, the ego that stands for “the conscious mind that contains one’s thoughts, judgments and memories” calls for one to rescue to help the person (IohT, 2005).

On the other hand, the id, which is the symbol of the subconscious, strives for safety which is a basic psychological and physiological need. This realization suppresses the person’s efforts, and the observation of the crowd that lives by its own “laws” and does not take action to remedy the situation may trigger the actions of some deeply hidden instincts of subjugation to the crowd.

A cognitive theorist would consider behavior from the angle that relocates the center of decision-making from environment, as in behaviourism, to the human mind. People under the cognitive approach “learn from observing others, one will form a conception of how new behavior patterns are performed, and on following occasions the symbolic construction serves as a guide for action” (Pizzuro, 2001).

Onlookers can have experienced similar situations when they viewed an attack with a group of friends or relatives, and their peers were not quick to respond. Learning occurs in the mind, with the help of basic cognitive processes. The person may learn to imitate others if one does not have a strong personal background in helping others and behaving individually. In this case, a person is simply imitating the behavior of the crowd.

Therefore, the bystander effect can be explained from multiple perspectives. The reasons uncovered will differ depending on the mechanisms used in the explanation. In any case, onlookers will experience something that will interfere with their normal way of reacting to human troubles.


Institute of Human Thermodynamics. (2005). Freud’s Psycho Dynamic Theory and Thermodynamics . Retrieved August 20, 2006, from http://www.humanthermodynamics.com/Freud.html

Pizzurro, E. Can Behaviorism Still Apply in the Face of Overwhelming Opposition? Retrieved August 20, 2006, from http://www.personalityresearch.org/papers/pizzurro.html

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