Tag Archives: bystander apathy

Audience of One


Researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley conducted a study in the 60’s on the power of social pressure.  They had subjects enter a doctor’s waiting room, thinking they were there for a check-up.  As soon as they arrived, they were asked to fill out a lengthy medical questionnaire.  Then, after a few minutes, the researchers began pumping smoke in through the ventilation system.

The receptionist had stepped away, so the person was all alone.  What do you think the person in the experiment typically did?

Went for help, of course!  75% of the subjects noticed the smoke within 30 seconds and got up to find someone who could do something about it.

Next, Latane and Darley added two people to the waiting room, who were already filling out the questionnaire when the subject arrived.  These two were in on the experiment, so when the smoke started coming in, they looked up, noticed it, shrugged their shoulders and continued filling out the form.

Surprisingly, 90% of the subjects in these experiments never went for help.  They noticed the smoke, but when they saw the nonchalant attitudes of the other people in the waiting room, they went back to filling out their forms.  Even when they had to wave smoke away so that they could see their forms, they chose to stay in the waiting room.

Finally, Latane and Darley used three subjects who knew nothing about the experiment.  When they noticed the smoke, they sneaked looks at each other, but 62% still chose not to do anything about it.  They tried to “out-cool” the other people in the room and waited for the others to make the first move.

Our fear of “playing the fool” is a powerful motivator for us.  We put so much importance on what others think of us that we will do all kinds of illogical, counter-productive, even life-threatening things to make other people think we’ve got it together.

This past weekend, I was at a men’s retreat, and one of the guys spotted a small snake in a tree.  Wanting everyone to know that I had already acclimated to living in Thailand after only five weeks in-country, I suppressed my fear of snakes in order to try to flush this one out of the tree by poking at it.  Most of these guys had been living in Thailand for somewhere between five and 35 years, and I knew with that kind of tenure, they probably handled snakes all the time.

But while I was poking around in the tree, the men gave me their interpretation of “men’s retreat.”  Each slowly backed away from me in a large circle, and one said, “Hey, you know, most of those are poisonous.”   Their reaction did a lot to change my perception of the situation.  It was no longer “cool” or “manly” to be teasing a snake out of a tree; now it seemed pretty foolish and uninitiated.  I put my stick down and let the snake have it’s peace.

I love/hate this part of me that cares what other people think.  Love it, because my ability to empathize has been one of the skills that has helped me to build strong relationships, do consulting work, help hurting people…  Hate it, because I can’t shut it off.  I worry 24/7 about what other people are thinking.  It interferes with everything, because I have a commentator in my head asking me questions all day long.  “What will they think of that?”  “Did anyone see what you just did?”  “How will they react if you do this?” 

I suspect Satan has given me a full-time personal demon, named “Public Opinion,” who sits on my shoulder and whispers these questions into my ear.  Maybe you’ve got one, too. 

What would we do if we didn’t care what others would think?  (Keep your clothes on.  A little concern over public opinion is a good thing.)  I mean, what would we do for Christ?  Because, really, He’s our audience.  He’s it.  Our audience of one, says Big Daddy Weave.

If we’re worried about anyone’s opinion of us, it should be His.  When we get to heaven, this is going to be so obvious to us, but here on earth, it’s hard to remember who we should face from the stage.  All the people around us make so much noise, we forget Christ is even watching.  But if we tune out everyone else…  If we focus just on Him…  Then it won’t matter if the people in the audience are booing or cheering us.   But truth be told, they are probably doing neither, because they (like us) think that they are the show that everyone is watching.

(S – Latane, B., & Darley, J. Bystander “Apathy”, American Scientist, 1969, 57, 244-268.)

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Bystander Apathy


In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered while 38 neighbors watched and/or listened but did nothing to help. No one even called the police. Most of the public were shocked when they read the report in the news. They couldn’t understand how so many could witness a brutal murder and do nothing to prevent it.

Researchers have since identified this phenomenon as “bystander apathy,” and it’s much more common than you might think. Several studies have been conducted to learn more.

In one experiment, a person is led into a room and left there (sometimes alone and sometimes with a stranger). A moment later, the experimenter plays a two-minute tape simulating a fall and subsequent moaning about a hurt leg. When the person in the experiment was alone, 70% reacted to help. However, when there was a passive stranger (someone who pretended not to notice or who noticed but remained calm and uninvolved) in the room, only 7% responded to the “accident.”

In another experiment, individual subjects were led into a room and asked to fill out a questionnaire. Sometimes, they were alone in the room, and sometimes there were others present. Smoke was then pumped into the room through a vent. When alone, 75% of the subjects left the room to report the situation, but when there were passive strangers present, only 10% took any action.

When people are in groups of two or more, their level of responsibility is reduced in an emergency situation. In effect, the more people present, the less responsibility the individual feels.

But what has an even stronger influence on the decision-making process in an emergency are the reactions of the people around the individual. If others respond with apathy, the individual is much less likely to act. Why? Because he might look foolish. Because he’s not sure he’s interpreting the situation correctly. Because he’s unsure what to do and so chooses to model the responses of those around him rather than make a mistake.

Researchers have concluded that five things need to happen in a very short period of time for a bystander to help in an emergency situation:

  1. He must notice the incident.

  2. He must interpret the incident as an emergency.

  3. He must assume responsibility.

  4. He must determine what response to use.

  5. He must implement his decision to help.

Makes me wonder… Which decision are we, as Christians, struggling with today?

  1. Is it that we don’t notice the condition of the world we live in?

  2. Is it that we don’t think it’s an emergency?

  3. Is it that we see so many Christians doing nothing that we assume that theirs is the appropriate response?

  4. Is it that we don’t know what to do?

  5. Is it that we know what to do but still fail to act for selfish reasons?

The more I travel, the more I’m convicted that the Church in much of the world is asleep. There is incredible Godlessness all around us and altars on every high hill, but we don’t notice it. Millions are starving or suffering from AIDS or being sold into brothels or being enslaved as child-soldiers, but we don’t interpret it as an emergency. In trying to look like we’ve got it all together, we are giving other Christians the impression that no action needs to be taken; this is normal; quit worrying.

The Enemy is selling us the drugs of ignorance and comfort, and we are groggy from too much complacency. We need to WAKE UP! THIS is why we’re here! God is calling us to act. The world is begging us to notice that they are under attack.

So what should we do? Something! Anything! It doesn’t have to be much; God will use it. Start by sponsoring a hungry child in another country or by serving at a soup kitchen. Give to a ministry that is where you can’t be. Babysit for a single parent who is at her wit’s end. Write to a youth in prison. Share your struggles with others so that they will know that they aren’t alone. Go online and learn about the injustice being done to those without a voice.

Above all, PRAY! Find the people group that God puts on your heart, and pray for them. Your prayers are more powerful than your dollars, more powerful than your talents and more powerful than your time. Your prayers will engage the Enemy in spiritual warfare and frustrate his progress.

Getting involved is scary. It puts us at risk. It involves sacrifice and discomfort. But without someone taking initiative, the rest of the Church just stands by and watches. No one wants to look foolish by over-reacting. Everyone assumes it’s someone else’s responsibility, but each of us is responsible for part of the solution. We are witnesses to a crime, and it’s time to act.

(S – Latane, B., & Darley, J. Bystander “Apathy”, American Scientist, 1969, 57, 244-268.)

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