The Bystander Effect:  It’s No Help

If you think there is no link between social psychology and roadside assistance, think again. The thing that connects them is what is known as the bystander effect, or bystander apathy.

You could say that the bystander effect is no help. It’s a short and snappy way of summing up what this means when we refer to this term. The term “bystander effect” is the phenomenon where someone is less likely to intervene in a crisis, and help is less likely to be offered when more people are present.

In another way of looking at the bystander effect, when an emergency arises and someone is in distress, observers of that situation are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses. The bystander effect also underlines the importance of things like roadside assistance, and we’ll soon explain why.

The bystander effect is not just a theory. There’s a lot of concrete evidence behind it and it is widely accepted to hold water in a scientific sense. This is largely thanks to a series of world-famous studies carried out in the late 1960s by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané. They found that being part of a large group of people means no single person has to step up and take responsibility in a crisis.

In one of Darley’s and Latané’s better-known experiments, their subjects were placed in one of three treatment conditions: alone in a room, with two other participants, or with two research actors who pretended to be normal participants.

The participants were asked to fill out questionnaires, and as they did so, smoke began to fill the room. When the participants were alone, 75% of them reported the smoke to the people in charge of the experiment. In stark contrast, only 38% of the participants reported the smoke in a room with two other people. In the final group, which included the research actors who were pretending to be part of the experiment, the actors noted the smoke and then ignored it – this resulted in only 10% of the other participants reporting the smoke.

In other experiments carried out at around the same time, 70% of people would help a woman in distress when they were the only witness. But only about 40% offered assistance when others were also present.

This brings us back to roadside assistance and why it is vitally important. This New Zealand rental car company includes this vital service for mechanical breakdowns within their standard charge. But are you as prepared with your own vehicle? If something goes wrong and you break down on a busy road, is the bystander effect more likely to kick in? It’s highly possible, given that the more motorists there are, the more likely they’ll think that someone else will stop to lend a hand. It might pay to put something in place today because you can’t always rely on fellow motorists – but you can rely on roadside assistance.

Wayne Blanchard
the authorWayne Blanchard