3 Steps to be a Better Bystander

Have you ever opened the door for someone who had their hands full? Have you ever nudged a classmate to wake them after they dozed off during a lecture? If you were near someone who dropped their bag and everything came spilling out, would you help pick things up? For many of us, the answer is yes because these moments are “low threat” and don’t carry any serious consequences when we lend a helping hand.

All of the above scenarios show what researchers call prosocial behavior - the willingness to do things to benefit others, potentially with no benefit to ourselves. It’s essential to high-functioning teams and to society in general.

But what if we change the scenarios?

  • You’re at a bar with your friends, and notice a man repeatedly approaching the same group of women. It’s clear the women don’t want to interact with the man, but he’s not taking the hint that the women want to be left alone.
  • You notice your friend posting a lot of depressing and hopeless comments on social media.
  • Your neighbors in your apartment complex have been screaming at each other non-stop for the past hour.
  • A good friend of yours has been getting blackout drunk every weekend for the past month.

Would you engage? For most of us, the answer isn’t so simple. It depends on many factors, which include:

  • Did you even notice the indicators that help was needed? (I am Aware)
  • Do you believe it’s your responsibility to provide help in this situation? (I am Responsible)
  • Do you know how to help in this context? (I have a Plan)

To improve your ability to engage in prosocial behavior and help others change the path of situations towards a better outcome, remove the barriers to being aware that people need help, taking responsibility, and knowing how to help.

Here are three practical tips for overcoming common barriers in each of these areas:

  1. 1. Recognize the alerts: When you see or hear something that seems off or concerns you, check your observations. Get more information for clarification from the person at risk, or other bystanders around you to make sure you are interpreting the alerts correctly.

  2. 2. Take responsibility: The presence of others affects our actions. This is known as diffusion of responsibility: we're less likely to take action when others are present, particularly if it’s unclear who should be responsible or who has authority. One way to overcome this tendency to diffuse responsibility is to be the first to take action. Even if you aren’t the “right person” to help, acknowledging that help is needed and calling in the “right person” is equally as effective.

  3. 3. Make a plan: Increase your likelihood of helping by having basic pre-made plans for high frequency issues that you might encounter. Have plans in place for when you are the direct helper who engages with the person at risk or the offender. If you are the indirect helper, bring in an authority figure to become the primary helper. Keep an “in case of emergency” card in your wallet or purse that contains key phone numbers for primary helpers in your area or unit (police, fire, chaplain, suicide hotline, or SHARP representative).

By understanding how to be more aware that people need help, taking responsibility to provide that help, and having a plan for how to help, you can be a more prosocial person that takes care of others in need.


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