The Bystander Effect

This afternoon, I got on a bus to get home. While waiting for it to go on its way, I noticed a foreigner (I am tempted to assume American, but since I have no direct proof I’ll keep it general) sitting at the front seat. I was seated around the mid part of the bus (around 4 rows away) and whatever he was doing was really none of my business, but he was talking so loudly eavesdropping was more compulsory than voluntary.

The foreigner was in his 50s, I think, and he was twisting in his seat to talk to three young Filipina girls (probably around 12-13 y.o.) seated at the row right behind him. I heard him ask the girls their names—so I presume they didn’t know each other personally—and I noticed he became somewhat irritated that they didn’t answer him right away, but instead were just smiling apologetically (I could see the girls’ faces reflected on the front mirror) and obviously confused about what to say and do. Anyway, the girls answered him with their names eventually, and he continued talking to them as the bus got on its way.


I no longer heard the conversation that ensued, as his voice was drowned out by the roaring engine and the traffic noise. Besides, I was so sleepy (had zero sleep since last night) I drifted off to a light sleep as the bus sped along the highway. I only roused when I realized I was nearing home, at which point I reminded the driver about stopping at my destination. I was still sleepy, but I noticed that the foreigner was still talking to the three girls (about 30min had elapsed). As the bus engine grew quieter, slowing its pace as we approached my stop, I could again make out what the foreigner was saying:

 “You girls are stupid! You are boring people, you don’t know anything! You know nothing! Do you know who Plato is? Plato? He’s a philosopher!”

The girls were obviously still confused about what to say and just kept smiling apologetically and looking at each other like they wanted for one of them to know what to do in the situation. One of them tried to carry the conversation about Plato, saying, Plato? She—

Foreigner (already shouting): She?? HE!! Plato is a ‘HE’!! You don’t know anything…!


At that point I was taken aback by the way the foreigner was talking to these girls. I caught a few more words from his ranting, like “the culture here,” but I didn’t gather much else. My mind was still pretty muddled up from a half-asleep state, and although I wanted to listen more as their conversation intensified, the bus had stopped to let me off because I had already reached my stop. I got up from my seat, and with a wrinkled forehead and a reluctant heart, I climbed down the bus. Without saying anything. Without doing anything. Goodness, and now I am stabbed by guilt and conscience.


It was only upon alighting the bus that it occurred to me I should’ve done at least something. I’ve never been a very assertive person, but I feel like the way the foreigner was talking to those girls deserved at least a calling of his attention. Does anybody deserve to be called stupid just because they didn’t know who Plato was? I think it is unfair to label people that way just because there are things you know that they don’t know. Had he been asked about Philippine history and Filipino figures, would he have had an idea? If he didn’t know who Jose Rizal or Apolinario Mabini was, would he consent to him being called stupid, boring, and a person who knows nothing?


My blood was boiling as I arrived home. Who knows the kind of psychological and emotional trauma that man inflicted on those girls by exerting such effort just to prove to them that they are stupid? What was he trying to accomplish, challenging those 12-year-olds to a discussion about Plato? Heck, I could’ve told him who Plato was if he really wanted to hear it from someone local. It was only upon arriving home and mulling more about the situation I had witnessed that I became all the more incensed at how I just got off that bus without at least trying to defend those girls from being helplessly called “stupid” over and over again, by someone who cannot seem to mind his own business and leave others in peace.

I mean, maybe I could not have totally stopped the man from insisting on calling them stupid anyway, but had I stood up and spoken in defense of those girls, at least they could’ve known no one has the right to treat them that way. At least someone could’ve reminded them they didn’t have to believe the label as true just because it came from someone who spoke English as his native tongue.


Filipinos are mostly an amiable people, content to sheepishly smile in the face of such situations. Most of us would rather keep mum than strike an argument asserting our rights. Even though we are already steamrollered by discrimination and unfair treatment, we lie still and retain that smile no matter how difficult the situation gets. This makes me proud of our resilience and good nature, but at the same time I shake my head in pity.

As a people, we may be poor and many are less educated, but we are worth more than how that man treated those girls. I understand the event cannot be generalized to all instances—certainly, not all foreigners speak or behave that way towards Filipinos. But witnessing such circumstance in the flesh made it clear to me just how much ignorance there still is in the world—and I’m not talking about ignorance regarding Plato.


The behavior of the foreigner exasperated me, all right. But there was a behavior that disappointed me more—my own.


Why didn’t I do anything to avert or at least mitigate the bad treatment I had witnessed? As a matter of fact, why didn’t any of the other people in the bus—adults, professionals, more knowledgeable individuals who could’ve spoken for those girls—say or do anything?


I could say that in my case it was because it was time for me to get off the bus, and I was too sleepy to gather my thoughts and do the right thing in the situation, etc…But I know it would be a lie to say so. There is no telling whether I would’ve walked up to the front of the bus and intervened had I stayed longer in the bus. I could tell many people were listening in to the conversation too, but no one was doing a thing. We were all probably recognizing that the foreigner was already starting to throw derogatory labels to those helpless girls. We were all probably thinking it wasn’t right anymore, and something must be done to stop it, AND someone must do that something to stop it.

Problem is, no one was thinking that he’s that “someone” who should do something about it. In our heads, “someone”—especially one who has to speak up or “rock the boat”— almost always means “someone else.” Not me. Someone else.


In social psychology, this is known as “the bystander effect” (a.k.a. bystander apathy). Faced with circumstances that require someone to behave courageously or help someone in need, people tend to avoid taking responsibility for taking any action, assuming that others will do so. In other words, the responsibility to decide or act in that instance is diffused among the people present in that situation.


Image courtesy of via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Image courtesy of Jon Eland via Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Studies about the bystander effect show that the more people there are witnessing the incident, the less likely someone will step up to help or do something. If, for instance, you happen to pass by a stranger writhing in pain on the ground, you are more likely to take the responsibility of helping that stranger if you chanced upon him while you are alone, than when you got to him with a small crowd already gathered in the scene. You are more likely to come to a stranger’s aid if you recognize you’re the only one around to help, because in that situation, there is no one else to whom the responsibility can be diffused. (All on you, honey. So you’re like, “Challenge accepted.”)


In London, England, four teenagers repeatedly stabbed a 10-year-old immigrant boy from Nigeria. As many as 10 people saw this happen but did not stop to help or call the police. The boy dragged himself to an open stairwell, where he bled to death.”—Psychology by Wade, Tavris, Saucier, & Elias (2004)


The real-life incident cited above is an extreme example of the bystander effect, but we also see this phenomenon in everyday situations, like the experience I had just shared with you. I am not proud to have been proof of its power and influence, but I can only hope to do better the next time a similar circumstance presents itself.


With the courage and conviction to no longer just be part of the anonymous crowd, I believe there’s a measure of positive change that we—as distinct individuals—can each do. ♠


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9 thoughts on “The Bystander Effect

  1. there’s an actual word for it? i love the term. i need to research the German counterpart for it. everybody feels spoken to at the wrong moments.

    i know how you feel. i’ve been there. what strikes me more though, is that those girls didn’t look for a seat anywhere else. haay naman.

    • Yvonne,

      Haha, that exact reaction–“there’s an actual word for it?”–I would always have every time I read a psychology book. Yes, please do research the German counterpart and share it to me once you’ve found it! 😀

      Thank you for empathizing. I’m quite sure you’ve witnessed situations like this yourself. Hmm, the girls didn’t look for a seat elsewhere because the bus was already jam-packed. It made the situation even more distressing because it was like the girls were “trapped” to stare him straight in the face and listen to him rant for the rest of the trip.

      • Zuschauereffekt. 😀 literally: Audience-effect.

        oooh please do share the other ”there’s an actual word for it?” terms! 😀

  2. This reminds me of one particular lecture in my Social Inequality class, when the prof asked the class, “Why isn’t going to the museum a more popular activity for poorer people?” Most of the class was of the thought that it was because working class people don’t have as much free time for activities like that (which require a biggish chunk of time) and said so, but one dude said, “It’s because when they look at the art, they’re reminded that they cannot afford to buy it.” Circumstance totally blinds people to how the other classes (lower, middle, working, etc) have it in life, to the point that for them the only logical experience is theirs because it is normative, it is the only one they’ve had. Therefore, they think it is the only valid one. I hate that knowing who Plato is is seen as THE sign of a well-educated person, because it is an extremely Eurocentric worldview. I mean, in a history class I took, the textbook we were using said that Magellan died because he interfered in “tribal wars,” fully leaving out the reasons why Lapu-Lapu is our national hero. It’s things like that, entries that are so woefully one-sided as to be laughable, that make me seethe in anger.

    And yet, when it happens right in front of me, I freeze, too. I said nothing to the guy in my Social Inequality class, didn’t offer a rebuttal, both because I was dumbfounded that he actually thinks that, and because I froze and was unable to think of anything remotely intelligent to say.

    • Thank you for reading and sharing a very relevant experience, Dani! How apt and ironic at the same time–that happened in a Social Inequality class! I couldn’t agree more with the point you raised here: “…for them the only logical experience is theirs because it is normative, it is the only one they’ve had. Therefore, they think it is the only valid one.” The capacity for tolerance and respect indeed takes more effort, wisdom and insight than just concluding our personal experiences and emotions are the only ones valid.

      Regarding the experience you shared here, I can sooo relate with what you explained about “freezing” when faced with such situations. I think the reasons you cited were the same things that froze me, too. It was a combination of being so dumbfounded somebody could derive a conclusion about someone’s intelligence just from a question about Plato, and of being unable to think of a clever and unbeatable comeback to shut the man up, or at least make him realize how unreasonable he was being.

  3. The foreigner is probably hitting on the girls. No doubt. But the girls were too friendly to turn away from the conversation. The man prolly started it in the first place.

    Hi! Blog hopping. 😀

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