Bystander syndrome

Psychologist Dr Philippe Gilchrist outlines three simple steps to overcoming 'bystander syndrome'

While many people acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment and violence, we often do not intervene, despite our core belief that it is wrong. Understanding barriers to action is the first step to overcoming them

It has become impossible to ignore the alarming extent of sexual harassment and violence in our communities, particularly against women

For example, 25% of female students report having been sexually assaulted (NUS, 2011).

In response to this widespread issue, the bystander Intervention Initiative was developed by the University of the West of England upon receipt of a grant from Public Health England, a telling indicator that the scale of sexual violence is now being seen as a public health issue.

Now being trialled in seven Cambridge Colleges, the initiative is an eight-session course designed to train those who may witness a problem situation (i.e., ‘bystanders’) to act as prosocial citizens and to help prevent harassment.

The program addresses our culture’s common attitudes and norms that are part of the problem (such as victim blaming and gender stereotypes). One of the key objectives of the course is to identify and challenge our common barriers to intervening when we witness a problem situation arising.

What stops us from stepping in?

While many people acknowledge the problem of sexual harassment and violence, we often do not intervene, despite our core belief that it is wrong. Understanding barriers to action is the first step to overcoming them.

In one scenario I discuss as a facilitator for the programme, we imagine a first-year undergraduate student.  She is bright and sociable.  Her first class is in physics, and the lecturer is very difficult to understand.  During the lecture she begins to panic, thinking to herself: “What have I got myself into?!  I don’t belong here in University! I’m going to fail!”

She notices that most people appear to understand the material very well, nodding their heads, and seldom asking questions.  After the lecture, she approaches several students for help.  To her surprise, they confess that they, too, understood nothing.

The same applies to many situations, including sexual harassment; we might all register an act of harassment taking place, but group inaction reinforces a false social norm for the perpetrator’s action, which becomes increasingly difficult to challenge.  

The example with the student also illustrates an effective way to combat a pluralistic ignorance that leads a bystander to wrongly conclude that they are in the minority when thinking something is wrong. First identify the problem; then reach out to another person and, finally, ask questions (which you may have incorrectly thought were ‘stupid’).  

Now imagine a girl at a party when a man aggressively puts his arm around her waist – she cries out, ‘Leave me alone!’  What do you do?  The situation may seem confusing.  You might think to yourself that maybe they are dating and just having a tiff – but that’s irrelevant to whether or not it’s OK, right? It happens again before you have a chance to do anything.

Now fear of retaliation is not always imagined – sometimes it’s better to leave and report it, or ask friends for help in stepping in.

Be the first to speak up

But there are several barriers to even taking that step. Diffusion of responsibility is a tendency for people to feel less responsible when others are present. Breaking the norm is difficult. Inaction can be justified: ‘There are so many people here, I’m only one person, why should it be my job to intervene?’  The trouble is that most people tend to feel this way when in large groups. One consequence of this diffusion of responsibility is the ‘Bystander Effect’ – the decreased likelihood of someone intervening when more people are watching. 

And when a perpetrator witnesses no one in a room of 50 people saying anything about what they are doing, false consensus can encourage them to believe that the majority agree their actions are acceptable.

Say something.  Anything.  Simply ask what is going on, or state that something makes you feel uncomfortable. Or just ask a question to disrupt the situation.

When you step in, you’ll find others who feel and think the same as you do. Step up and you can encourage others to do the same. Do this enough times, and you begin to challenge a destructive norm and create a new culture of zero tolerance.

Join this week's Breaking the Silence campaigning to increase bystander interventions to stop sexual harassment as part of National Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week 2018. Download materials here or at

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