Bystander Intervention: How It Works and Why It’s Needed

Do you believe ordinary people can make a difference?

At the heart of bystander intervention is the belief that ordinary people can make a difference. We can decide, individually and collectively, to make our communities safer. We can decide to look out for one another, and to do something to avert a crisis if, and when, someone else may be in danger.

According to the police report, two men rode their bikes past Brock Turner as he was sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Thinking what they saw didn’t quite look right, they slowed down to investigate. They realized one of the figures they were looking at wasn’t moving. After chasing Brock, one of the two tackled him while the other called the police. They held him there until the police arrived. As part of a long, heartfelt speech at his trial, the woman we knew at that time as Jane Doe, thanked those two men…

“Most importantly, thank you to the two men who saved me, who I have yet to meet. I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story.”

Chanel Miller
Chanel Miller Reads Her Entire Victim Impact Statement
At the heart of bystander intervention is the belief that ordinary people may be the only ones who could prevent a crisis
At the heart of bystander intervention is the belief that ordinary people may be the only ones who could prevent a crisis

Have you ever needed help, and wished someone would have stepped in? Have you ever wanted to help someone, but for whatever reason, you didn’t? Can you remember a time when a stranger helped you? Have you ever helped a complete stranger? For most people, one or more of these situations has happened. Possibly multiple times.

The Cost of Action and Inaction

Bystanders often fail to act because they perceive the cost of becoming involved as being high. But it’s important to also consider the cost of inaction! What are the potential consequences of not doing something?

During almost any crisis, similar responses can be found. There are, no doubt, many who missed warning signs because they don’t know what to look for. There are also those who notice, but decide to dismiss, minimize, or ignore red flags.

Unfortunately, those who have the power to take action often choose not to. For those who see trouble brewing, but do not step in, common reasons include:

“I assumed someone else was more qualified”

“No one else seemed to be concerned…”

“I didn’t know what to say”

“It was none of my business”

“I was afraid of insulting them”

“I didn’t want to be seen as a snitch”

“I thought someone else would help”

“I wasn’t sure they needed help”

“I was afraid for my safety”

“I wasn’t sure how to help”

Bystander trainings try to preemptively address many, if not all of these concerns.

Empowering the Public to Act During a Crisis

Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in December of 2012, it was determined that bleeding kits containing tuniquets could have saved a significant number of the lives lost. A national committee was formed to create a policy intended to increase the chance that victims of this type of event would survive.

…the American College of Surgeons [ACS] in collaboration with the medical community and representatives from the federal government, the National Security Council, the U.S. military, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and governmental and nongovernmental emergency medical response organizations, among others.

American College of Surgeons [ACS]
The Hartford Consensus

That committee identified three “levels of responders” present at mass-casualty events: immediate responders [bystanders who intervene], professional first responders, and trauma professionals. The immediate responders were the only ones on the scene, and therefore in a position to have the greatest impact on the outcome of the tragedy.

They started a program called Stop the Bleed to “empower the public to provide emergency care” by strategically training to use tourniquets. What they concluded about active shooter situations is no less true when it comes to bullying, sexual assault, hazing, or domestic violence.

Making sure someone doesn't drive drunk is one way people intervene
Making sure someone doesn’t drive drunk is one way ordinary people intervene

Bystander Intervention Involves Five Steps

Notice

First, someone has to notice a potential incident. Perhaps something is happening that seems out of the ordinary and that captures their attention. Before acting, bystanders must notice that something is wrong. This requires both awareness of what is happening around them and also knowledge of warning signs.

How do you know when someone has had too much to drink? Would you catch a “cry for help” online? Do you know the warning signs of suicide? Are there potential problems for which you’re unaware of the red flags?

Noticing what’s happening around us can be more difficult than it sounds. We’re often caught up in our own world and buried in our technology [phones, headphones, computers]. Perhaps it’s late and we’re tired. Or maybe we’ve been drinking, are overwhelmed, just had an argument with a sibling, are worried about finances, or simply woke up in a bad mood

Ordinary people, provided they’re able to remain situationally aware through life’s ups and downs, will notice unfolding events and be able to assist others in need.

Interpret

Before bystanders intervene, they filter what’s happening through their knowledge of potentially harmful situations. When it’s still unclear, they continue to observe, or ask questions. When your gut tells you something isn’t right, it’s worth looking into.

Ask yourself, “Is this situation problematic?” If what’s happening is potentially harmful, also ask yourself if it’s an emergency? The answer to that, and other relevant questions, will impact how you choose to act.

If you’re still unsure, dig deeper. Do this even if others appear unconcerned. Studies show bystanders are often more conflicted than they appear. After the fact, concerned bystanders who do nothing often feel a sense of guilt.

Again, if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Also, would you rather step in when help isn’t needed, or ignore a situation where help is needed?

Assume Personal Responsibility

Prior to any action, bystander intervention requires that someone is willing to assume personal responsibility for others. They have to decide, if action is needed, they’ll be the one to offer it. Choosing to become involved is dependent on two things: individual leadership skills and a sense of shared responsibility.

Do you value looking out for others? Do you want to have a role in creating a community, and world, where others flourish? Do you believe that stepping in to help others could avert an incident that might affect the rest of someone’s life?

I know individual actions can profoundly affect someone’s life. I’ve witnessed the potential of bystander intervention, firsthand. I also know that bystander intervention begins the moment a person consciously decides to be involved, to become a leader, role model, hero.

Assume that no one else is better positioned, is better qualified. Assume the outcome is in your hands alone, regardless of how many people are there. History has shown, unfortunately, that the likelihood of receiving help doesn’t increase when more people are present.

Assess Available Bystander Intervention Strategies

Once someone decides to act, they begin making decisions about what, specifically, to do. Consider timing, the tone of the situation, the safety of everyone present [including yourself]. Don’t forget that recruiting others, including professionals, is an option. You can approach bystander intervention in direct and indirect ways. Beyond the situational context, your personality, comfort level, knowledge, and relationship to others involved, may all play a role in determining the best approach. For instance, some prefer to use humor, others may try to derail a situation through distraction. Only you can decide what’s best, using the information and resources currently available.

Ordinary people
Bystanders Intervene in a variety of ways, based on the unique circumstances of the situation

Ultimately, Bystanders Intervene Through Action

The final step is to act. To do something that could change the course, the outcome, of unfolding events. This is where most “ordinary people” hesitate. One way to move past that hesitation is to think about potentially harmful situations, and options for action, ahead of time. Plan ahead, practice, and rehearse. Visualize situations, your response, potential issues, and ideal resolutions.

People tend to move through these five steps one at a time. Understanding them, even just being aware of them, can help us assess our state of mind in the moment. This, in turn, reveals some of our mental barriers. We can recognize what’s causing us to hesitate.

Ordinary People Can Make a Difference, You Can Make a Difference!

I want to leave you where I started – at the heart of bystander intervention – the realization that YOU have the power to make a difference! You could profoundly impact the wellbeing of others, while helping create safer communities and a better world.

Author profile

Hi! I write books and blogs about wellness and adopting healthy living habits. My first children's picture book, Gabby Makes a Friend, is available at Amazon. I’ve been teaching sociology courses at community colleges since. Beyond work, I'm the proud mother of two beautiful, adult children. I’m a recovering perfectionist, whose hobbies include meditation, cooking, hiking, and yoga.

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