Being an Active Bystander
The Bystander effect was developed in the 1960s following the shocking news reports of the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in New York. Although over time the story has become embellished and contested (initial reports that “dozens of residents did nothing”, numerous witnesses have come forward who claim to have heard residents call out and interrupt the attacks, or who called the police) the key principles of the Bystander Effect have remained observable across the world. Simply stated, it says that most people – when confronted with a dangerous or uncomfortable situation – will be effectively paralysed out of action by the collective influence of societal conditioning (if no-one is doing anything, no-one wants to challenge “the group”), and by the diffusion of responsibility (everyone expects that “someone else” who is hypothetically better qualified, or braver, or responsible will take action, and therefore there is no need to help).
The idea remains in the modern day – from motorists who pass by a break-down on the freeway, to gendered violence or harassment on the street – Victoria’s state government has begun a PSA initiative to encourage people to “Call it Out” through their Respect Victoria platform.
The Right Thing: Easier Said than Done?
It’s all well and good to be aware of the bystander effect – most of us know what we should be doing, and hope, or genuinely believe that we would “do the right thing” when presented with such a situation. The US president, Donald Trump, even claimed after a school shooting that “(he) would’ve charged right in, unarmed.”
This disconnect from what is observed in reality and what most people believe of themselves is imbued in us through one of the great keys to our civilization: storytelling. From the earliest times around the fire to the modern Hollywood blockbuster, our stories centre around a protagonist meeting challenges and overcoming their own difficulties to save the day. We have developed an idea that we will always instinctively rise to the occasion by virtue of necessity. The reality is that when presented with stressful situations, we sink to the level of our preparedness.
S.T.O.P: Confronting Situations
White Ribbon Australia, the leading body for preventing gendered violence nationally, has developed a guide for stopping violence against women – while it is designed specifically to combat the unacceptably high rates of violence against women, it is also a good framework to adapt to any confronting situations. In the clearest terms, S.T.O.P. Means:
See: Don’t ignore something suspicious – take a second to confirm what’s going on, and if you think something’s not right, be a witness. If it’s appropriate, use your phone to record what is happening, as it may be important in later actions.
Talk: If it’s safe to do so, challenge the behaviour in a non-threatening or non-escalating way. Simply asking “What’s going on?” may provide a break in the cycle. Using open questions are usually an effective method of de-escalation – the psychological effect of making someone stop and think about an answer, even if it is just a “Piss off!” or “Mind your business!”, it may be enough to disrupt the confrontation.
Offer Support: Intervening doesn’t have to mean putting yourself in danger – in fact you should never attempt to confront an violent encounter if you are uncertain of your safety, or if it may increase the risk of harm to yourself, the subject, or other bystanders. Offering support may be as straightforward as calling emergency services: call 000 and let the parties know “I’m calling the police”. If it may be too risky to your own safety to call 000 and speak, a good trick is to call 106 – this will connect the national TTY service, and allow a bystander to communicate information to the appropriate service without exposing themselves. If others are already intervening, a bystander can help by standing by those who are already engaged, by being a witness, calling for support, or simply providing moral support. Post incident, offering psychological first aid (see our earlier article) can also be an important part of intervening.
Prevent: Of course, prevention is always better than intervention. Consider your own personal security measures and situational awareness, look out for your friends and family or co-workers – don’t be too proud to take proactive steps to personal safety – in a perfect world, no one should need to make such consideration, but for now it is better to be prepared and aware than accept a reactionary role in any confrontation.
Looking For Work
In the close-quarters, high stakes world of room-to-room combat, the military has a mantra: “Look for Work”. There is always something that needs doing – a door that needs covering, a teammate who needs partnering, a wounded teammate who needs first aid.
A common issue observed in first aid situations is that people are reticent to step up to help (the “diffusion of responsibility” discussed above), but an equally common problem is that people “don’t want to get in the way” – they feel that they are better helping by staying out of the way, ironically often causing further complications by crowding the incident area, increasing incidental pressure on those actively aiding, but also missing the opportunity to provide important help, too.
Go back to Looking for Work as a concept: What needs to be done?
Is traffic being controlled or redirected?
Are crowds being kept away (remember one of the guiding principles of first aid is maintaining a casualty’s privacy)?
Has someone gone to retrieve a first-aid kit or AED?
(One interesting outcome of the January 2017 Bourke Street attack was that a quick-thinking bystander ducked into a nearby chemist and attempted to retrieve supplies for the responders on the scene, only to be confronted by a security guard for shoplifting.)
Have emergency services been called? Is anyone ready to meet the responders and guide them to the incident?
Is anyone taking notes about the incident or the responder’s intervention?
This approach – of looking for and following up on something that needs to be done, or at least might enhance the interventions being offered – has follow on effects, too. It has been shown that people who believe they are doing something to affect the outcome of a confrontation or intervention are more likely to recover psychologically that those who remain “passive” bystanders or resign themselves to the situation: they usually report feeling “helpless”. This phenomenon can be embraced by a smart responder to energise others, passing on the effect of that perception of positive efficacy.
So it’s good to be active – it’s good to help.
How are these skills and behaviours developed and practised?
The obvious answer is developing and practising the core skills – take more than just your workplace’s mandatory first aid training once a year: invest in ongoing professional development through a reputable RTO. Another idea is to build on that training by sourcing a personal first-aid training kit: practice bandaging and wound care as it’s relevant to the most common environments encountered – the workplace, or road accidents.
Ensure that any equipment is available in case of an incident. At Mindset, we use and recommend TacMed Australia’s Immediate First Aid Kits (IFAK) – all our EPOs carry one while on duty, and most of our staff keep one in their private vehicles, too. Having the right equipment right away not only helps provide better intervention to a casualty, but it has the psychological effect of boosting confidence in a person intervening.
For more information on the guidelines for intervening safely in a confrontation or violent event, head to www.whiteribbon.org.au/stop/ to see their resources.
Mindset Securities (NSW M/L 000101961) is a full-service security and consulting provider with professional ties to the White Ribbon Foundation. Call, email, or DM us to further discuss your personal or organisational awareness and training needs.
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