Thursday, 3 November 2011

Tom Stafford: Avoiding bystander apathy

Psychology actually helped me come to someone else's rescue once. One day, after lunch, I was heading back to the University of Sheffield Psychology department when I saw that a car had broken down in the middle of the road. Traffic was building up in both lanes, and I could see that the driver was a young mother, with her baby in the back seat. I wanted to help, even if it was just to push the car to the side of the road where it wouldn't be in the middle of the busy traffic, but I knew I wouldn't be able to it alone. As an academic I don't have to use my muscles, except for the ones in my fingers for typing, so I knew there was no way I could push car and mother and child up the slight hill to safety without help. But, as a psychologist, I was also familiar with the classic studies on bystander apathy and the diffusion of responsibility that can stop people helping others out. I determined that I wouldn't fall victim to this phenomenon. So, rather than standing by the car shouting for assistance from everybody and anybody, I identified two lads who looked like they'd be handy in pushing a car and pointed at them and said clearly "You - I need you to help me push this car". Once identified and given a specific request, I knew that no diffusion of responsibility could prevent them helping out. We pushed the car safely to the side of the road and got on our respective ways. I never told the driver how psychology had come to her rescue.

Tom Stafford is a lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Sheffield. He takes two blogs into the shower, not one: and

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counselor ceus said...

Thank you so much for posting!! People need to know exactly what to do such as pointing and assigning tasks to others in order to combat the diffusion of resposnsibility dynamic

Counselling Southampton said...

great blog! this one's pretty useful, I could really use this one, maybe not now but I know someday. Thanks for posting!

Nancy said...

I was on a flight once and the attendant fretted aloud that people seated in the back wouldn't make their connections. when we landed, she said, "some people in the rear need to get off first to make their connections" but everyone ignored her and stood up, blocking the aisles. I think if she had said authoritatively, "Please sit down until the three people in the back come forward," it would have made a difference.

Claire said...

Very interesting, do you think marketing communications could overcome bystander apathy in a similar way (specific tasks advising what to do) or does it need human to human interaction at the point when the behaviour is required?

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