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Bystanders’ Effects and Minority Victims Proposal


In psychology, the issue of bystander effect has elicited a lot of research interest. Occasionally, the media report cases where an individual rescues a person from a mob or helps guide a lost visitor. These are examples of bystander intervention. However, sometimes bystanders may refuse to aid a helpless person, resulting in incapacitation or death. This represents a case of bystander effect.

Social psychologists attribute bystander effect or apathy to a number of situational, personal, and social/cultural factors. Social factors include the relationship between the bystander and the victim and the size of the crowd while situational ones are variables like lack of time, inherent danger, and the passerby’s level of culpability for the situation. Personal attributes (traits), gender, and age can also influence an individual’s willingness to aid a person in need.

The size of the crowd has been found to influence the aiding behavior among bystanders. In large groups, responsibility is spread over many people, which increases the bystander effect. With regard to social influence, people often observe the behavior of other group members before taking action. Studies have sought to understand the bystanders’ motives for aiding a victim or failing to help and how they handle ethical dilemmas related to helping a stranger in distress.

Of particular interest is the bystanders’ differential responsiveness to out-group versus in-group members. The proposed study will examine whether members of a dominant cultural group receive more help from bystanders than ethnic/racial minority victims. The research question for this study will be; does the bystander effect have more impact on minorities than on other groups?

Statement of the Problem

Studies show that passersby may intervene to rescue a person in an emergency or a victim of street violence. However, various situational and social factors influence their willingness to help a distressed individual. In particular, group dynamics, gender, age, and cultural/racial prejudices shape a bystander’s helping behavior. Nevertheless, it is not clear how this phenomenon affects minorities.

In particular, minorities are often victims of racial prejudice from the dominant group. Ingrained prejudices and attitudes harbored by members of a dominant group lead to discrimination against minorities who are often accorded a lower social status. Moreover, people perceive minorities as individuals predisposed to violence and often victimize them whenever they are involved in a misfortune. Given these historical factors, minorities are less likely to receive help from bystanders drawn from the majority group.

Literature Review

The bystander effect is a well-studied topic in the field of human psychology/behavior. Research has focused on the bystanders’ willingness and motives for helping a person in distress. Crowd size and social relation to the victim have been found to influence the witnesses’ willingness to help. Besides social variables, personality and situational factors also influence helping behavior.

Social Variables in Helping Behavior

Helping behavior towards people in distressful situations depends on variables such as race/ethnicity, sex, and age of the bystander and victim. A study by Rabinowitz et al., (1997) found that a lost person asking for guidance from passersby is likely to receive “more frequent and thorough aid from individuals similar to him or her” than from people with different demographic characteristics (p. 2).

The study was a field survey involving natives of three European cities and tourist-confederates. The researchers found that the age of a bystander determines his or her altruistic behavior in giving directions to a lost visitor. In this study, the results indicated that young people (aged between 20 and 29) were more willing to help (91 percent) a lost tourist of the same age than older ones were (62 percent) (Rabinowitz et al., 1997). Moreover, male participants showed greater attentiveness and thoroughness than women when helping a female tourist.

Studies also indicate that female victims receive more help than males whenever they are in distressful situations. Eagly and Crowley’s (1986) meta-analysis found that men are more likely to suffer from the bystander effect than women are. The study also found that male bystanders are more altruistic to a female in distress than to a male victim. In this article, men’s helping behavior towards female victims stemmed from the fact that the emergency took place in public settings and not private environments.

The authors advance the social role theory, which attributes aiding behavior to the prevailing circumstances (Eagly & Crowley, 1986). In addition, gendered roles require men to be “heroic and chivalrous” and women to be always “caring and nurturing” (Eagly & Crowley, 1986, p. 167). In this view, the finding by Rabinowitz et al. (1997) that male bystanders are altruistic to female tourists is consistent with gendered roles that expect men to be assertive and gallant.

Studies have also examined the impact of social status on a person’s willingness to help. Goodman and Gareis (1993) hypothesize that bystanders readily extend help to a person of high social status or professional rank. In contrast, bystanders are often less willing to help an individual they perceive to be of a lower rank or position. The study involved an experimental approach whereby attorneys and gas station attendants pretended to be in distress and requested participants to place a phone call on their behalf.

The results showed that people were willing to help the lawyers make a call, but not the gas station attendants. Goodman and Gareis (1993) explained this phenomenon using the view that people evaluate others using “their own social schemas” (p. 4). In other words, people are not likely to blame or criticize individuals perceived to belong to a high social status. On the other hand, people believe that low status members “cause their own problems” (Goodman & Gareis, 1993, p. 4).

The researchers explain that often bystanders hold favorable ‘social schemas’ regarding people of high social status (the lawyers) and unfavorable view towards low-ranked functionaries (the attendants). Another notable finding in this study is that, although the participants earned wages close to the attendant’s pay, not many were willing to give him assistance. This shows that the theory that people are more likely to help victims similar to them does not stand in all contexts.

Group Dynamics

Besides social status and gender, studies have examined group membership as a function of altruistic behavior among bystanders. A study by Baskerville et al. (2000) investigated how race and gender affect bystander effect in emergency scenarios. In this study, flowers were randomly distributed to passersby and their reactions noted. The study found that women passersby “responded more positively to a random act of kindness” than men did (Baskerville et al., 2000, p. 5). This shows that males and females have different views and attitudes towards help.

Another notable finding of this study is that passersby of all races exhibited positive reactions when a white person gave them the flowers. The results showed that 49% of white and 44% of African American participants did not respond positively when the person handing them a flower was black (Baskerville et al., 2000). The authors reasoned that ingrained cultural prejudices made passersby to perceive a friendly act from a white more favorably than a similar deed from an African American. The study reveals the cultural biases that underlie the willingness to aid a victim or a stranger in need.

In contrast, in their study, Belansky and Boggiano (1994) hypothesized that men were more likely to aid a stranger (regardless of his ethnic background) than women. This study rated the personality attributes of 114 undergraduate students using a special questionnaire. The subjects (a white majority) were exposed to different scenarios involving an acquaintance in a threatening situation.

The study generated results that are consistent with the social role theory postulated by Eagly and Crowley (1986). The study found that females are more likely to come to the aid of a friend in need than men are, especially when the problem can be resolved through nurturing or caring. In this study, self-schemas related to in- or out-group influenced the helping behavior of the subjects studied. Moreover, according to this research, men, compared to women, can offer help to complete strangers after short-term interactions.

Researchers have also examined the impact of social relationships on the bystander effect. In general, the bystander effect is more pronounced in situations where the victim has no social relationship with the passerby. Levine and Crowther (2008) established that large crowds reduce the bystanders’ willingness to help a victim. The study used an experimental approach and different sets of subjects. The study found that bystanders familiar to one another are likely to display helping behavior than onlookers who are not friends.

On the other hand, females generally display helping behavior towards close friends, even when the group size becomes larger. In contrast, male bystanders are less likely to help an acquaintance under similar conditions. However, an increase in the “number of out-group bystanders” reduces helping behavior among women, but increases it among men (Levine & Crowther, 2008, p. 439). This indicates that bystander helping behavior depends on in-group/out-group characteristics and relationships.

Bystander Effect and Race/Ethnicity of the Victim

A number of studies have examined the relationship between bystander effect and race of the victim. Sechrist and Milford (2007) examined the effect of “social consensus information, i.e., knowledge about out-group beliefs”, on a bystander’s willingness to help (p. 367). In this study, 88 subjects (white students) were exposed to positive consensus information regarding African Americans.

Their racial attitudes and aiding behavior towards an African American or White victim were evaluated. The study found that subjects exposed to “favorable consensus information” displayed more helpful behavior towards African Americans than those who received unfavorable details did (Sechrist & Milford, 2007, p. 369). On the other hand, consensus information had no effect on bystander responsiveness in cases where the victim was white. This study gives insights into how group prejudices shape bystander attitudes and aiding behavior.

A comparable study by Saucier, Miller, and Doucet (2005) examined aid accorded to white versus black victims. The meta-analysis evaluated 48 hypotheses drawn from 31 different studies examining the helping attitudes towards racial minorities (blacks). In this study, the failure to help was not directly correlated with racism. On the other hand, if the act of helping is time consuming, tiring, and riskier, then blacks received less aid from helpers than whites did. In cases involving emergency or disasters, blacks were likely to face discrimination.

However, diversity has been found to attenuate discrimination against blacks. A study by Triana, Kim, and Garcia (2011) investigated how “perceived discrimination against minorities” relates to good citizenship behavior in ‘diversity’ situations (p. 339). The study, which surveyed 173 workers, found a negative correlation between minority discrimination and helpful behavior towards minorities (blacks and women) in the workplace. Thus, in culturally diverse settings, minorities are likely to benefit from positive citizenship behavior.

A similar study by Aberson and Ettlin (2004) also makes comparable findings. This study compared the conditions that contributed to bystander favoritism to either white or black targets. It involved a meta-analysis of 30 researches with a sample size of 5000 subjects. The authors found that when a bystander’s evaluation of a distressful situation yields ambiguous results, they tend to favor white victims over African American ones. In this regard, the authors conclude that white targets receive more favorable treatment than black ones even when the conditions are neutral. Sechrist and Milford (2007) make similar findings regarding racial prejudice and its role as a factor that motivates helping behavior.

It is against this background that this study hypothesizes that minorities are more likely to be affected by the bystander effect than members of the dominant group are. The writer opines that minorities are unlikely to receive any help from bystanders regardless of their gender or age. They will elicit less help from a bystander compared to a member of the dominant group. As a result, minority races will be treated with bystander apathy resulting in injury or death. Thus, in the proposed study, the bystander effect will have more impact on minorities than on the dominant group.


Research Design

The study will involve a quasi-experimental design with the ‘minority group’ being the independent variable. The quasi experiment approach utilizes existing traits or conditions in the population, i.e., the factors that the investigator cannot manipulate. In this way, compared to true experiments, it is easier to control confounding effects in quasi-experiments because the participants are often unaware that they are experimental subjects. The participants in this study will comprise of undergraduate students (including, males, females, minority individuals, and whites) studying in a university.

Sampling Procedure

The study will involve a hypothetical sample of 72 participants drawn from a large student population of a university. The study subjects will be grouped into two categories based on their gender and race. Recruitment will involve email solicitation and requests/ads placed on the university’s notice board. Emails will be sent to subjects (mainly undergraduate students) requesting them to participate. However, they will not be told that they belong to the experimental group.

Although most of the college students tend to be non-discriminative, any person can display behaviors and attitudes reminiscent of prejudice against minorities. In this regard, the study will recruit both male and female participants. The subjects will participate in the study on a voluntary basis and thus, will receive no monetary rewards or payments after the experiment.

The email messages that will be sent to potential subjects will bear a hyperlink that will lead them into an introductory page thanking them for agreeing to participate. The web page will also have a consent form approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board. This form will explain the study’s purpose, expected outcomes, and terms and conditions of participation. Potential subjects who agree to the terms will check the ‘yes’ option as an indication of their consent. In addition, the web page will contain the researcher’s contacts that participants will use to reach him.

Implementation Procedure

Eight students will be selected from the sample recruited to serve as experimenters. The experimenters will be representative of the sample, i.e., they will bear all the characteristics (gender and race) of the population. The experimenters will be split into four groups (male, female, minority, and white) of two each. The experimenters will serve as the victims of a misfortune to test the responsiveness of the other students (bystander effect). The rationale for selecting two students per group is to separate personal idiosyncrasies (confounding variables) from the variables that will be tested (race and gender).

The experimenters will be instructed not to interact with friends during the experiment. Each one of them will approach an unsuspecting subject in any location within the university campus. Once a subject enlisted to participate in this study appears on the passageways or corridors of the university’s buildings, the researcher will beckon the experimenter (carrying a set of books) to approach him or her. On approaching the subject, the experimenter will pretend to slip and drop the books on the ground. A subject who responds by helping the experimenter to collect his or her books will be considered to exhibit helpful behavior.

White and minority experimenters will repeat the experiment with different subjects. If more white experimenters receive assistance from the subjects than minority do, it will be an indication of bystander apathy towards the minority race. The subjects’ racial background and gender will be recorded alongside their helping behavior scores to determine the impact of intra-group variables on the bystander effect. This will indicate whether minority experimenters receive more help from subjects of the same racial background or gender.

Research Instruments and Measures

Various instruments will be used to assess the participants and enhance the validity of the measures. The important ones being the personal profile questionnaire and the bystander intervention measure or BIM. Potential subjects will fill a demographic questionnaire wherein they will indicate their personal data, including gender, age, and race/ethnicity. In addition, the subjects will indicate their year of study, location of their home (urban or rural), and grade point average (GPA) in the demographic questionnaire. Other information that may be relevant to the proposed study, including the participant’s previous encounters with bystander apathy or help, will be requested. They will indicate whether they have ever helped a victim or if they have been a survivor before.

The second instrument is the bystander intervention measure, which will assess the participants’ intervention behavior. It will consist of 12 items with responses ranked using the Likert scale. It will explore the participants’ immediacy when offering help and the extent he/she will go to help a victim. It will include various scenarios of distress and request the participants to rank their rate of responsiveness and possible intervention options.

The BIM will not measure the probability of intervening, as situational factors can affect helping behavior. In this view, the instrument will find out the intervention options that the participant is likely to take when faced with different scenarios. In order to evaluate the respondent’s aiding behavior, each participant will be required to identify behaviors he/she deems appropriate in distressful situations. Based on the results, the subjects will be divided into two groups: low and high involvement categories.

Data Analysis

As aforementioned, to avoid confounding effects the experimenters will be grouped into four groups (male, female, minority, and white) of two with each one of them testing eight subjects of different gender and race. The data, tabulated based on the races of the victim and bystander, will be analyzed using analysis of variance (two-way ANOVA) to determine the intergroup differences. Significant intergroup differences will indicate ‘bystander effect’ disparity between the two races.

The study will also use a multi-factorial analysis of the variability to determine the impact of bystander effect on race and gender. This will help reveal the extent to which minority students helped one another versus aiding white participants. Conversely, factorial analysis will show how often white subjects helped one another versus aiding minority victims. The results will indicate which group between the two suffers more bystander effect. ANOVA will also help determine the group (minority males and females) that suffers more bystander effect. If minority males receive less help than their female counterparts, the researcher will conclude that gender attenuates or exacerbates bystander effect.

Possible Utilization of the Results

The study will examine whether minorities are less likely to receive help than members of the dominant group. Whites dominate the university’s student population. Other racial groups such as African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Latinos constitute the minority groups. In the proposed study, if students from any of the minority groups receive less help than whites, it will be concluded that the group suffers more bystander effect. On the other hand, if the minorities receive more help than whites, then this will be an indication of favoritism towards disadvantaged groups. Additionally, the study will also determine the intra-group differences in the level of help accorded to male and female victims.

Both sets of results will have implications for social psychology. Bystander effect reveals the underlying attitudes and prejudices harbored by people towards out-group members. Thus, a finding that minorities suffer from bystander effect will indicate that racial prejudice is deeply rooted in society. Another possible application of the results will be on the field of counseling psychology. It will identify racial/ethnic variables that can be included in bystander intervention programs to improve helping behavior among citizens.

The results will also improve our understanding of gender-race interactions. Findings from earlier studies indicate that female bystanders, unlike males, are less likely to help an unfamiliar person (regardless of race). However, gender roles in the modern society have changed and thus, minority male or female victims may receive differential help from bystanders. In addition, as racial discrimination is fast fading, minorities and whites may receive an equal amount of help from passersby. Thus, the proposed study will yield important insights into modern racial dynamics.


Aberson, C. & Ettlin, T. (2004). The Aversive Racism Paradigm and Responses Favoring African Americans: Meta-Analytic Evidence of Two Types of Favoritism. Social Justice Research, 17(1), 25-46.

Baskerville, K., Johnson, K., Monk-Turner, E., Slone, Q., Standley, H., Stansbury, S.,…Young, J. (2000). Reactions to Random Acts of Kindness. The Social Science Journal, 37, 293-302.

Belansky, E. & Boggiano, A. (1994). Predicting Helping Behaviors: The Role of Gender and Instrumental/Expressive Self-Schemata. A Journal of Research, 30, 647-62.

Eagly, A. & Crowley, M. (1986). Gender and Helping Behavior: A Meta-Analytical Review of the Social Psychological Literature. Psychology Bulletin, 100, 283-308.

Goodman, D. & Gareis, K. (1993). The Influence of Status on Decisions to Help. The Journal of Social Psychology, 133, 23-32.

Levine, M. & Crowther, S. (2008). The Responsive Bystander: How Social Group Membership and Group Size Can Encourage as Well as Inhibit Bystander Intervention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 429-439.

Rabinowitz, E., Sutton, L., Schutter, T., Brown, A., Krizo, C., Larse, J.,…Wright, S. (1997). Helpfulness to Lost Tourists. The Journal of Social Psychology, 137, 502-510.

Saucier, D., Miller, C. & Doucet, N. (2005). Differences in Helping Whites and Blacks: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9(1), 2-16.

Sechrist, G. & Milford, L. (2007). The Influence of Social Consensus Information on Intergroup Helping Behavior. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 29(4), 365-374.

Triana, C., Kim, K. & Garcia, F. (2011). To Help or Not to Help? Personal Value for Diversity Moderates the Relationship Between Discrimination Against Minorities and Citizenship Behavior Toward Minorities. Journal of Business Ethics, 102, 333–342.

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