Bystander intervention occurs when a bystander helps in a critical situation (Fischer et al., 2011).
However, intervening as a bystander can be intimidating or complicated.
Many bystander intervention training programs attempt to teach people how to intervene in critical situations and identify situations where they can intervene (McMahon & Banyard, 2012).
Bystander intervention can involve many different behaviors to de-escalate or stop a situation. Bystander intervention typically involves interpersonal conflict or situations where, for example, one person is making another person uncomfortable.
Bystander interventions can be crucial in various settings, from online to college campuses to workplaces.
Bystander Intervention Definition
Bystander intervention is important. However, many studies have shown that individuals are less likely to help or intervene in an emergency if other bystanders are there than if they are not. This phenomenon is called the bystander effect (Brody & Vangelisti, 2016; Fischer et al., 2011).
In other words, the bystander effect would have the opposite intended result of bystander intervention.
The bystander effect is impacted by many factors, including the perceived seriousness of the situation, the number of bystanders, and the costs of the intervention (Fischer et al., 2011).
Bystander intervention training attempts to reduce the likelihood of a bystander effect occurring by teaching people when and how to intervene in various situations.
5Ds of Bystander Intervention Training
The 5Ds of bystander intervention behavior include distract, direct, delegate, delay, and document (Cannada & O’Connor, 2021; Casper et al., 2023).
These are used to train people on how to manage situations where they need to intervene as bystanders. The 5 D’s are:
- Distract: Distraction is an indirect behavior used to intervene. Distraction involves taking attention away from the situation or the person causing harm. This distraction may give the person experiencing harm time to get away from the situation.
- Direct: Instead of taking an indirect approach,you can directly intervene. This can include speaking up about the harm in a firm and clear way.
- Delegate: Delegating involves getting help from someone else. Maybe you’re not sure how to handle this situation, but you know you need to do something to help. Or maybe you don’t think you can handle the situation alone. First, you can scan the situation to assess risk and decide how to intervene. Then, you can ask others around you to do specific tasks while you attempt to de-escalate the situation.
- Delay: Delay leaving the scene. After the situation is over, you should delay leaving until you’ve checked in with the person experiencing harm. This is important because it shows the individual who experienced harm that they are valued.
- Document: If you encounter a situation where someone is already intervening, you can document the situation. You should ask the person who experienced harm what they would like you to do with the documentation. Never post a photo or video online without the consent of the person who was harmed.
10 Bystander Intervention Examples
- Bystander intervention training: Bystander intervention training involves teaching people what situations to look out for, how to intervene, and how to overcome possible barriers to intervention. For example, college campuses frequently host bystander interventions specifically focused on preventing sexual assault.
- The bystander effect: The bystander effect describes when people are less likely to intervene in the presence of other people. This has implications for bystander intervention when more than one person witnesses a situation causing harm. For example, maybe you are working on a group project for a class, and one of the group members says something sexist to the only woman in the group. Several men disagree with what was said and look around, hoping someone will speak up. However, no one intervened because everyone was waiting for someone else to take that responsibility.
- Barriers to bystander intervention: In addition to the bystander effect, there are several barriers to bystander intervention. Factors like the number of bystanders can impact the likelihood of intervention. Additionally, people frequently don’t know what type of interventions to intervene in or what to do if they need to intervene.
- Distract: Distracting from a situation can involve any action that takes the focus away from the situation causing harm. For example, imagine you are at a work happy hour event. You look over, and one co-worker appears to be making another co-worker very uncomfortable. The co-worker causing harm is talking at the other co-worker very closely and appears to have them cornered. You approach the situation and “accidentally” spill your drink on the co-worker causing harm to get them to leave. You could also intervene by inserting yourself into their conversation and act like you have something important to ask the person being harmed.
- Direct: There are indirect and direct approaches to bystander intervention. Direct approaches involve directly intervening in a situation. For example, you are riding public transit home, and you overhear a woman saying racist things to another woman on the train. You turn around and speak up firmly and straightforwardly. You could say, “Hey, I overheard your conversation, and that is not OK. You need to leave this woman alone.” Hopefully, a direct intervention leads the person causing harm to back down. However, it is always important to gauge the risk of the situation when intervening.
- Delegate: Delegating means getting help from someone else. For example, suppose there are other people around. In that case, you could suggest that someone support the person experiencing harm by assisting them in leaving the situation. Meanwhile, you can try to de-escalate the situation.
- Delay: When participating in bystander intervention, it is recommended that you delay leaving the situation and check in with the person who was harmed. For example, suppose you intervene in a situation, and you can de-escalate it. In that case, you could stick around to check in with the person who experienced harm. You could ask them how they are doing, ask if they need anything, or offer them information on support or resources.
- Document: If you witness a situation and someone is already intervening, you can document the situation. For example, in the public transit situation above, you may overhear racist comments too. When you turn around, someone is already confronting the woman causing harm. You could back up that person by recording the person causing harm. After the situation de-escalates, make sure to ask the person who experienced harm what they want you to do with the documentation.
- Bystander intervention and cyberbullying: Cyberbullying incidents often happen in the presence of other people. However, bystanders can intervene both in person and online. Factors like the number of bystanders, anonymity, and closeness with the person experiencing harm can impact bystander intervention online (Brody & Vangelisti, 2016). For example, anonymity decreases the likelihood of bystander intervention occurring.
- Bystander intervention and medicine: Bystander intervention can be used in many situations. Abusive or harmful behavior can occur in public, schools, or workplaces. For example, some physicians have called for bystander intervention in medical training programs to decrease workplace harassment (Cannada & O’Connor, 2021). They argue that many witnesses to harmful behavior may lack the appropriate skills to respond to the situation, and bystander intervention training could increase those skills.
Bystander intervention occurs when a bystander comes to help in a critical situation and intervenes.
Bystander intervention is typically described in the context of interpersonal context, harassment, or abuse.
Among other things, people must overcome a possible bystander effect to intervene.
Bystander intervention training is used in many settings to avoid harmful situations.
Brody, N., & Vangelisti, A. L. (2016). Bystander intervention in cyberbullying. Communication Monographs, 83(1), 94–119. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637751.2015.1044256
Cannada, L. K., & O’Connor, M. I. (2021). Equity360: Gender, race, and ethnicity—Harassment in orthopaedics and #SpeakUpOrtho. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research®, 479(8), 1674. https://doi.org/10.1097/CORR.0000000000001884
Casper, D. M., Witte, T., Gibson, E., & McCulley, E. (2023). “I Pulled Them Apart and Told Them to Stop”: A mixed-methods examination of bystander behavior, preparedness, and emotional reaction. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 38(1–2), 1517–1539. https://doi.org/10.1177/08862605221092071
Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., Heene, M., Wicher, M., & Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 517–537. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023304
McMahon, S., & Banyard, V. L. (2012). When can I help? A conceptual framework for the prevention of sexual violence through bystander intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 13(1), 3–14. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838011426015
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]