The Bystander Effect and Shoplifting

 In Hero Training, Social Psychology

The Hero Training provided by Hero Town Geelong is supported by social psychology research and concepts. One of the concepts that we use is the bystander effect. But what is the bystander effect, and how is it related to heroism?

Understanding the Bystander Effect

The bystander effect refers to the phenomenon where a person is less likely to act in an adverse situation if there are more onlookers present. Famously originating from the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, the bystander effect is so powerful that Kitty’s screams of pain were ignored by the 38 witnesses. John M. Darley and Bibb Latané were the first to research the bystander effect, to alarming results.

Across multiple experiments, it was found that the presence of other bystanders actually inhibited people from acting in an emergency. There were many factors that prevented bystanders from helping, from a belief of their inability to help to not noticing the situation itself. In a recent study into the bystander effect, Anhur Shayea measured the likelihood of stealing against the presence of one or more bystanders. The research paper can be read at the University of Twente.

Diffusion of Responsibility

While it would make sense that the presence of a bystander would pressure a shoplifter into not stealing, it has been found that the opposite effect is true. The researchers hypothesised that the more bystanders present, the more participants would successfully steal the item. While the results were roughly equal when no bystanders were present, the results were overwhelmingly in the favour of stealing while bystanders were around. This is thought to be because in large groups of people, a potential shoplifter can retain anonymity and blend into a crowd.

The results showed that offenders are encouraged by bystanders to steal. In other words, if more
bystanders are present, more offenders are likely to commit an offense.

Additionally, a phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility occurs within large groups of people. This happens when each bystander assumes that someone else will step forward and act, therefore removing the responsibility from themselves. Whether the bystander believes that they are not equipped to help, they are afraid of the risks involved, or if they are in a hurry, the bystander effect enables them to refuse responsibility.

Self awareness

Interestingly, participants were less likely to steal the item when a mirror was present. This is thought to be because of the inner self-awareness participants experienced when they acknowledged their actions. Being forced to observe their actions confronted the participants with the guilt and morality of their actions, dissuading them from stealing the item.

In situations where a criminal act could occur, self-awareness may play a role and make the person conscious of their attitude and that could reduce criminal behavior.

The researchers identified two types of self awareness – the first, private self awareness, refers to the inner turmoil the participants experienced when observing themselves in the mirror. The second, public self awareness, is related to the perception of others in a group situation. Participants were less likely to steal when they were the only customer in the store, as they perceived that the staff were more observant of their behaviour.

Breaking the Bystander Effect

The bystander effect can seem intimidating with all of this research, but it is a spell that is easily broken. As we can see in the video below, all it takes is one person to step up and act. Once that one person has taken action, it unleashes a surge of help that is powerful enough to move a train.

You can learn more about the bystander effect and what you can do to become a hero in your own life by enrolling in hero training.

Steph Downing
Stephanie Downing is the administrative assistant for Hero Town Geelong. Born and raised in Geelong, Australia, Stephanie is a graduate of Deakin University with her Honours degree in Professional and Creative Writing. She adores words of all sorts and is especially infatuated with the medium of poetry and fiction, with publications of her work being featured in magazines such as WORDLY Magazine, Plumwood Mountain Journal and Cordite Poetry Review.
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