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8. Be More Than A Bystander

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I can’t really explain why, but the bystander effect really intrigues me. I think it’s because the first time I heard about this phenomenon (second-year social psychology) I was so appalled and in disbelief by the inaction of the bystanders in the case of Kitty Genovese – at least a dozen people heard her cry for help yet no one did anything which ultimately led to her death. I think it’s fascinating because I’m sure if asked hypothetically, the majority of people would say that they would intervene in situations where one is abusing another. But something written on paper differs from actions taken in real life, and because I could potentially be a bystander in a situation, what would I really do?

This kind of relates to the idea of personal agency because we all want to believe that we have the power to control what we do and keep in line with our morals. However, as demonstrated in the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), some guards expressed how it brought out the worst in them and they did things that they would never have pictured themselves doing. Zimbardo concludes, “we all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces,” but the truth is that rarely anyone is capable of this, and by believing that you have personal control over the situation, can actually make you more vulnerable (180).

Back to bystanders. In the SPE, John Landry was seen as one of the good guards by the prisoners, probably because he didn’t do anything directly harmful to the prisoners. However he admits that he “let cruelty happen and did nothing except feel guilty” (188). Maybe he couldn’t have been able to stop the abuse but Baumeister says that the “inaction of bystanders implies moral approval even if the bystander could not have stopped the evil” especially because perpetrators sometimes see themselves ambiguously, and this was the case in SPE (356). Although a bystander, John did have some power; he was a guard, after all. Why didn’t he bother doing anything or at least voice his thoughts?

I looked into this and found a study by Pöyhönen, Juvonen, and Salmivalli (2012) who looked at the reasons for different bystander responses to bullying situations. They evaluated the students’ expectations concerning three possible outcomes of defending – bullying declining vs. increasing; victim feeling better vs. worse; and one’s own social status improving vs. declining. The results showed that there were significant motivational and value differences between defending the victim, remaining passive, or siding with the bully. The more students felt that defending the victim would be effective and that the victim would feel better, the more likely they were to do so. However, if the bystander didn’t expect defending to help the victim or did not care if the bullying decreased, then they reinforced the bullying. The passive bystanders were ones that had differing expectations and values. On the one hand they did expect the victim to feel better if they tried defending them, but on the other hand, they didn’t think that the bullying would decrease if they helped, so instead they withdraw from the situation. I believe this finding somewhat explains the reason why John didn’t do anything at all – it is obvious he felt bad for the prisoners, but he didn’t think that stepping up to defend them would do anything, probably because the bullies (like Hellmann and Arnett) were so overpowering.

Bullying isn’t just between the perpetrator and the victim anymore, as bystanders also play a role, whether active or passive. A relatively new campaign, “Be More Than A Bystander” developed by the Advertising Council, encourages the notion that if bystanders know what to do, they can actively do something to defuse the bullying such as moving the victim away from the situation or reporting the treatment to an adult.

On a different note, and I brought this up in class, but it is interesting that the two brothers were seen as the better guards. I thought it was maybe because of the fact that they could talk about the happenings of the prison together when they were home, as it seems like all the other guards stepped from being a guard to being their normal self, once outside of the prison. They may not have consciously thought about or reflected on their actions and what had been going on. Gil mentioned being brothers could have broken the illusion of the SPE, making them more consciously aware that it was just an experiment. I’m interested in what others think… Do you think that the effect of being brothers or being able to talk about the situation outside of the prison affected how they went about or played their guard roles?


2 responses »

  1. This post is a great segue into the readings for this week and may come up this week in class. The study you posted is interesting and I agree, to an extent, that there is some truth in it regarding John Landry. However, I think looking at it from this perspective does not give us the whole truth. It is important to remember that the SPE was an experiment, and thus had supervision. Something I wrote about in my blog this week is that by not intervening when the behaviours of the guards escalated, Zimbardo silently stated approval of the way the experiment was being carried out. If they were out of line then he would have stopped them. I think this is important in assessing John Landry’s bystander behaviour because though the other guards may have been overpowering and he may not have agreed with the behaviours inflicted on the prisoners (rightfully so), the fact that the experimenter was letting this happen probably and the accompanying dissonance probably had something to do with why he did not act differently.

    The campaign you posted is very powerful. I think that a template (for social modelling) can have many positive effects in our society. Bullying is a great example! Along with this, more education and prevention strategies within schools and communities can really help as well… The more you know!

    As for the question you raised in class, I think the answer from class was extremely correct – they were not so easily absorbed into the SPE because they were brothers rather than strangers.

  2. Hey, that was a sad clip. Breaks my heart. I think that as Gill said the idea that they were able to discuss it among themselves outside of the experiment, and that the brother dynamic left less room for full role adoption makes sense.

    However, adding to that, personality and upbringing have a lot to do with how we navigate our way through the world. Introverts and extraverts will act differently in their respective situational encounters. Especially, when one is told to take on a role where your suppose to be extraverted. In this case one will would most likely see the extraverts thrive in terms of aggression and leadership. The introverts usually tend to be more withdrawn and docile though still assertive . Yes, I believe that the sheer element of being in power may induce an abuse of it. This is Zimbardo’s whole argument, that situational forces take precedence over dispositional traits. To a large extent yes this makes sense, however we would be foolish to totally discount trait personality factors/differences in individual behaviour. If personality did not play a role what so ever then participants in the study should have displayed a uniform way of behaving depending on their respective role. Conversely, this was not the case, participants acted like individuals, exhibiting that they still had the capacity to make choices within the constraints of their situations. Also a side note, one should consider the type of people (and traits) that might be attracted to volunteer for a “prison experiment” (it could of all been for the money though lol). Anyway…here is just a quick example for how experience might affect your behaviour.

    Let’s say you have been told your whole life what to do in a suffocating manner and your parents are very much like a prison guard; then maybe when you get a little power you act the best way you know how (experience). Not to mention it would probably be liberating to boss others around for once. Obviously the situational forces have a great impact and a lot of people would take full advantage of this but it is certainly not the only factor influencing behaviour! The brothers most likely were raised differently/had different trait personality characteristics, maybe more empathy? maybe less testosterone? Maybe they had a relative who had really ben to jail?I We must be careful not to attribute one single factor to an individuals behaviour. There are numerous factors that affect behaviour, situational, psychological and physiological ect.


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