Essay Writing Samples

Bystander Apathy: Situations that Contribute to Action or Inaction

Bystander apathy is a well-studied topic in the field of psychology. This sample paper from Ultius explores the reasons behind bystander apathy, and the reasons for the inaction itself.

Bystander Apathy that contributes to action or inaction

The study of bystander apathy (also called “The Bystander Effect”) has been a topic of great interest within the field of psychology. Bystander apathy has been examined in both non-emergency and emergency situations and it has been found as a general rule that there is a higher degree of unwillingness to assist during emergency situations than non-emergency situations.

However, it has been shown to be true in studies that if an emergency is considered highly dangerous, degree of participation is also high. Therefore, when a person does decide to intervene, there are reasons for the action of assistance and when a person engages in bystander apathy, there are reasons for the inaction and the reluctance to assist.

What causes bystander apathy

One study that examines the phenomena of bystander apathy well was conducted in 2011 and compiles research of bystander apathy from the 1970s up to the present day.

“Early research consistently showed that the presence of passive bystanders reduces the likelihood that individuals will intervene and help a victim in a critical situation” (Fischer et al., 2011, p. 518).

In carrying over into the present day, this rule is good in general but there are specific factors that can affect a person’s decision to intervene. One of these factors ironically is the addition of other bystanders.

“Participants…were more likely to help (65%) than participants in the alone condition (55%)” (Fischer et al., 2011, p. 521).

However, this is usually the case only when the other bystanders in the group are thought to be competent to the original bystander who is considering intervening in a dangerous situation. In sum,

“…a bystander’s decision to help depends on the perceived cost of helping, the benefit of helping to the victim, and the perceived likelihood that other bystanders will help” (Fischer et al., 2011, p. 521).

In addition to the factor of independent versus group intervention, there is also an examination into the analysis of emergencies and their degrees with respect to a person’s choice to intervene.

Fight or flight emergencies are by far the most telling in the reduction of bystander apathy. This is believed to be the case because the consequences for not assisting the victim outweigh the risk of intervening itself. In a study conducted in 2005, 86 male and female participants between the age of 18 and 34 were tested in varying degrees of emergencies to ascertain the level of bystander apathy.

In regards to the bystander’s assessment of risk for the victim,

“less intervention occurred in the condition with low potential danger (31.7%) than in the condition with high potential danger (41.9%)”.

Within the category of low danger in respect to the victim with the addition of other bystanders, the differences are striking,

“…only 5.9% tried to help the victim when a bystander was present”.

Behind the statistics of bystander apathy

This would suggest that behind much of the decision to intervene has a lot to do with the bystander’s assessment of risk to the victim in a given situation. If the danger high, there is less hesitation regardless if there are additional bystanders present and if the danger is considered to be low, there is a lot more hesitation, especially when more bystanders are present.

Further compounding the choice between action and inaction by present bystanders is a fear of performance judgment. In a study of 83 college students, researchers attempted to evaluate whether or not fear of negative assessment by other people hindered an individual bystander’s choice to intervene. Participants in the study were scored to determine levels of fear in connection with social situation intervention. These scores were categorized under the label FNE (Fear of Negative Evaluation).

The presence of others, males are more likely to help than females. This could be due to the fact that men are expected to help in emergency situations more than females, lending credibility to the idea of social pressure.

When examining a person’s decision to act, there are steps in the decision making process. In the article The Beauty of Intervention, this process is broken down into five parts ultimately leading to the choice of action or inaction.

  1. First, a person has to notice something is happening. Arguably, this could be harder to do when an emergency is less severe. It is possible that an emergency that is occurring simply slips under the radar of the bystander.
  2. Second, a bystander must interpret the noticed event as an emergency.
  3. Third, a bystander must make the decision to accept responsibility to intervene. From the above discussion it has been demonstrated that this decision is made based on the degree of the emergency as well as the risk to the bystander themselves and the victim in the situation.
  4. Fourth, there is a puzzle within the mind of the bystander as to how to assist. This part of the process would largely affect a bystander who is overly self-conscious regarding their social performance.
  5. Lastly, there is the actual act of assisting. (Kulis, 2004, p. 41).


In addition, sometimes contributing to bystander apathy is a feeling of helplessness as to how to help. As shown, there are a number of factors that contribute to all of the steps on the way to the ultimate decision of acting or not acting.

The existence of bystander apathy is complex as well as variable. The above studies have shown that the more dangerous the emergency, as determined by the bystander, the more likely a person is to provide assistance. It has also been shown that additional bystanders can both help and hinder a person’s choice to act depending on several other, sometimes competing, factors.

There is also consideration given to the decision making process itself that contributes overall to a person’s choice to act or not act. Overall the research has shown that the reason for bystander apathy is hard to pinpoint and is understandable only on a case by case basis with emergencies and the people responding to them.


Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., Kastenmuller, A., Krueger, J. I., Vogrincic, C., Frey, D., … Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 517-537. Retrieved from

Fischer, P., Greitemeyer, T., Pollozek, F., & Frey, D. (2006). The unresponsive bystander: Are bystanders more responsive in dangerous emergencies? European Journal of Social Psychology, 36(2), 267-278. Retrieved from

Karakashian, L. M., Walter, M. I., Christopher, A. N., & Lucas, T. (2006). Fear of negative evaluation affects helping behavior: The bystander effect revisted. North American Journal of Psychology, 8(1), 13-32. Retrieved from

Kulis, J. V. (2004). The beauty of intervention. Professional Safety, 49(9), 41-43. Retrieved from

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