Overcoming the Bystander Effect with Disaster Planning

One perplexing aspect of modern life is a phenomenon known as “the bystander effect.” I was reminded of this human tendency in a recent Wall Street Journal article (“The Gadget and the Bad Samaritan“) which described this behavioral tendency of some individuals who fail to act or intervene when witnessing someone in need of assistance. Further, the journalist goes on to observe that with the increase in the use of mobile technology and social media, the tendency for people to “not get involved” is actually on the rise.

What ever happened to being able to count on people to do the right thing at the right time you ask? The bystander effect is one aspect of societal change that requires us to readjust our planning efforts…especially in times of disaster when seconds count.

Social scientists theorize that individuals placed into emergency situations go through a number of predictable mental and psychological steps before choosing (or not choosing) to take action. These steps include:

  1. Awareness
  2. Perception
  3. Processing-interpreting
  4. Recognizing a sense of responsibility
  5. Determining their capability to assist
  6. Thinking of a plan 
  7. Acting. 

At any step in this process, a person might “walk away” or “walk past” an emerging incident rather than get involved. Some of the common reasons for not acting include:

  • A person doesn’t notice or understand the situation 
  • He/she does not perceive any sense of obligation or responsibility to do something 
  • The number of other people present affects an individual’s notion of their responsibility to react
  • A person doesn’t believe he/she is capable of acting or does not know “what-how” to act
  • A person is distracted. Note – the impact of mobile technology use has further complicated this issue. Mobile devices are obviously potential distractions that prevent people from noticing or paying attention to critical situations and the distress of others. 

Disaster and recovery planning implicitly makes assumptions about responders, employees and/or members of the public. In modern context however, it may be time to rethink assumptions and become more deliberate in making people aware of the unfortunate bystander effect.

When reviewing your disaster and recovery plans, it is critical to empower and educate employees, and in some cases the community, to act promptly and mitigate problems before they become more dangerous and more costly. No longer are assumptions and heroic expectations holding ground for the planning and recovery process. Business owners must assess every part of their plans and constructively assess whether or not their crisis teams have what it takes to be effective during a crisis

Through ongoing education and by cultivating a sense of responsibility and motivating employees to promptly engage (rather than withdrawal), you will help improve the safety and resiliency of everyone involved.

About the Author: Robert C. Chandler, Ph.D.
Dr. Robert C. Chandler is a Professor of Communication and Director of the Nicholson School of Communication at the University of Central Florida (UCF) where he leads the Center for Crisis Communication. He is an internationally recognized professional speaker and social scientific researcher with more than 150 academic and professional papers based on his research of crisis communication, leadership, teamwork, decision making, and psychometric variables during emergency and crisis communication.