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Bystander Apathy and Climate Change

The "Bystander effect" is the name given to the phenomenon whereby, in the words of the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, "The more people present when help is needed, the less likely any one of them is to provide assistance".

Work on this phenomenon was triggered by a particularly horrifying murder which took place in New York in 1964. The attack took place outside, lasted half-an-hour and the victim's screams were heard by some 40 of her neighbours. No-one intervened and no-one called the police. There are other equally shocking examples. How can they be explained?

At first sight it looks like sheer callous indifference - apathy is too polite a term. However, the more thoughtful explanation places less moral blame on the bystanders but is perhaps equally worrying:

Often it is the presence of other people that prevents us from intervening. Specifically, the presence of others serve (1) to define the situation as a non-emergency and (2) to diffuse the responsibility for acting

(Atkinson et al 1985)

Imagine it for yourself: you find yourself in a crowd watching an apparent violent assault. What would go through your head? Speaking for myself, although worried and disturbed, I would think that because no-one else is doing anything, it must not be what it seems: perhaps a film or a piece of street theatre is underway - it cannot be an emergency because no-one else seems perturbed. And besides if it is a real emergency, surely someone else must have already called the police - there is nothing to suggest that I should be the one to take responsibility. (Looking to others for guidance on how to behave goes by the term social proof)

The bystander effect has been studied extensively because it is easy to set up and manipulate simple experimental emergencies. For example, in one study participants were asked to fill in a survey form and as three of them sit together doing so, they can hear the occupant of the next office as she moves around. After a few minutes they hear a crash and a scream followed by cries for a help indicating clearly that a bookcase has fallen on her and she's trapped and injured. Of course the 'emergency' is a recording and two of the participants are confederates of the experimenter who make no response to the appeals for help. In this situation only 40% of people tried to help. Participants who are alone, however, feel freer to respond - 70% of them went to the woman's aid. (Latané & Rodin, cited in Atkinson et al 1985)

What has this to do with green behaviour?

None of the recently published Defra reports [into changing behaviour in a greener direction] mentions the bystander effect as such - it is just a small part of the overwhelming evidence that we are thoroughgoing social beasts and not the rugged individuals we sometimes fancy ourselves to be.

Climate change is not precisely a bystander situation because what we directly experience is just the familiar changeable weather. "Anthropogenic climate change" is not an immediately sensed emergency: it is a scientific construct based on an intricate and technical web of abstract reasoning which brings together a huge number of small direct observations made by people we have never met. The emergency is real to us only because it is reported to us by people we have very good reasons to trust on this sort of question.

Yet I find the bystander effect strikes home in a very personal way because the other component of the effect, the apparently unconcerned crowd, is immediately sensed. We are surrounded by that unconcerned crowd the moment we step out of the door into the traffic-filled high street.

When I read the sober environmental article in the broadsheet, I turn the page to find a 'travel section' assuming that a holiday involving air travel is the norm. The same government which asks me if I'm 'doing my bit', quivers before the road haulage industry and assumes that the best interests of the country are served by airport expansion, road building and housebuilding with no increase in energy standards. And everywhere, but everywhere, there are more and more, bigger, flasher, louder cars and vans. The implied message is unmistakeable: nobody is actually concerned.

What are the bystanders doing? Nothing - and I find it almost impossible to resist the feeling that therefore it can't really be an emergency.

What can be done?

The bystander effect underlines how all attempts to move society in a green direction must take account of the way our behaviour changes in response to other people's.

What comes out is how strong the social modelling effect is: we look to other people to tell us how to act. In situations where there are no other bystanders, people are much more willing to take action. In situations where one bystander does take action, then others follow.

The bystander effect underlines the importance of role models. What used to be called 'setting an example' (and is now trumpeted as a component of 'leadership') is essential. Thinking about it, I have realised that being seen to behave in a certain way is one of the most important personal contributions I can make.

To give an personal example, it bothers me that environmentalists fly to conferences on climate change (no matter how useful), and conversely it inspires me when they make a point of not doing so.

Final comment

There is another way of mitigating the bystander effect: teaching people about … the bystander effect. Now I know about what can happen, I'll behave differently if I find myself in a crowd of gawpers. (Atkinson p 606 describes an experiment which supports this). Is there any way this can be used in relation to climate change I wonder?


Atkinson, Rita; Atkinson, Richard, Smith; Edward, Hilgard, Ernest. (1985) Introduction to Psychology. Ninth Edition Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: Orlando Florida

A discussion of the bystander effect can be found in almost any general undergraduate psychology textbook


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