5 steps for overcoming the crippling “bystander effect”

by | August 5, 2013

Given the choice, Kitty Genovese would rather not have become the subject of social psychology research.

As she was returning home from work on March 13, 1964, Kitty was approached by a man who attacked and stabbed her.

She screamed repeatedly for help. At least a dozen people heard her screams, but it took a full thirty minutes before someone contacted the police.

Four years later, researchers John Darley and Bibb Latane, fascinated by the Kitty Genovese case, first demonstrated the bystander effect in the lab.

The greater the number of people present, they discovered, the less likely people are to help a person in distress.

For example, they staged an experiment around a woman in distress. 70 percent of the people alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and was hurt. But when there were other people in the room only 40 percent offered help.

The bystander effect is explained by what social psychologists call diffusion of responsibility: In a large group of people, people may feel that individual responsibility to intervene is lessened because it is shared by all of the onlookers.

Let’s cut through all the psychological jargon and state it bluntly: People in crowds are stupid. They become followers. They stop taking responsibility for their actions.

That’s precisely why following the crowd cripples our success — not because following is intrinsically wrong, but because when following a crowd our sense of responsibility is stifled.

Taking ultimate, unflinching responsibility for our choices, results, and happiness is the first and foundational principle of success.

No progress can be made without responsibility. As long as we have someone to blame or some reason to justify and excuse our lack of success, we can never claim our power.

There is an inverse relationship between excellence and conformity. The more we conform to social pressure, the less excellence we achieve.

By definition, excellence is unique. The principles for achieving it may be universal, but no two expressions of excellence are alike.

Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling and sculpted David. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Steve Jobs built Apple Computers.

What’s your unique expression of excellence? What pressures are you conforming to that are restraining your unique purpose and voice?

(For help finding your unique purpose, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

Being a bystander in crowds is bad enough, but even worse is people being passive bystanders to their own mediocre lives.

They drift on the wind and waves of life without a clearly defined purpose and a firm commitment to a cause. They let fear, doubt, and worry dictate their choices rather than faith and courage.

According to research, bystanders go through these cognitive and behavioral processes:

  1. Notice that something is going on
  2. Interpret the situation as being an emergency
  3. Degree of responsibility felt
  4. Determine the form of assistance
  5. Implement the action choice

These five processes provide the steps for overcoming the bystander effect in our own lives:

  1. Notice: Take stock of your life. Where are you currently? Where do you want to be? What do you want to do? Who do you want to be? What is your purpose? Write down your answers.
  2. Interpret: Be honest with yourself. Are you living up to your full potential? How big is the gap between your current performance and what you know you’re capable of?
  3. Take Responsibility: Don’t blame your parents, your circumstances, your lack of talent, your lack of connections. No justification or rationalization. You were brought to your current state by your own choices. Period.
  4. Determine Your Action Plan: What are you trying to make happen? How will you measure success?
  5. Implement: Just do it. Make it happen. Start that business. Write that book. Take that dream vacation. Hike to the top of that mountain. Cut up that credit card. Stop wishing and DO IT.

Kitty Genovese was murdered while bystanders watched. Likewise, human potential is snuffed out while people conform to culture and passively watch their lives pass by.

Just because everyone around you is living a scripted life doesn’t mean it’s okay for you. Break the mold. Stand out from the crowd. Be the change.

Would you rather be studied by social psychologists for your conformity, or by descendants for your greatness?

(For tools to discover your greatness, click here to download my free toolkit now.)


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