Outline and evaluate two or more theories of bystander behaviour

Within pro and anti-social behaviour, there is the idea of bystander behaviour. This refers to how people react in different situations. In times of need some people freeze, some act, some scream with fear, and these are all examples of bystander behaviour. There are a few theories as to why people will behave as they do when presented with different situations. When considering bystander behaviour, it is important to hold a particular view of altruism in mind-that people helping is, essentiality a selfish action, for example Aronson et al., 1997, “That was the very essence of selfishness. I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and let that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs.” (Please note this is an adaptation of the original research)

The first such model was devised by Piliavin et al., 1981, and was called the bystander-calculus model, or cost/arousal model. It attempted to explain some of the psychological and cognitive factors involved in bystander behaviour. This model only applies to emergency situations. It states that, when faced with an emergency, a bystander goes through five stages. The first is cognitive awareness of need- does the bystander perceive the situation as an emergency and does he/she have an understanding of the possible need of the people involved. If the bystander fails to notice, then they will keep on walking and no help will be given.

The next stage is arousal, both emotional and physiological. Almost immediately on noticing that something is amiss, heart rate will drop, as if as a warning to stop and pay a bit of attention. The defensive reaction of arousal occurs almost immediately after. This is the fight-or-flight response and prepares the body to take whatever course of action is decided. Piliavin et al. found that the higher the arousal level, the more likely the bystander to help. Subjective emotional feelings also begin to come into play now- what does the bystander feel about what is happening and the people involved. The third stage is interpreting all the changes that have just occurred. The label that the person chooses for the sensations in their body, eg anger, fear, is largely influenced by the situation.

Pilavin et al. believed that the most common way to label arousal was as personal distress, and that people intervened to quell this feeling (negative-stage relief model of altruism). Between this stage and the next, social norms come into effect. The idea of reciprocity, acting as you would expect others to act towards you, and social responsibility, both may add to a feeling of obligation to help. Stage four is the cost-benefit analysis. Every possible action and outcome is weighed up on this calculus. Possible benefits maybe intrinsic, for example feeling good about yourself, or extrinsic, for example a monetary reward for your aid, whilst possible costs involve time, effort, possible injury.

There are also two other types of cost that the bystander considers- personal and empathy. Empathy costs relate to the feelings of distress the bystander feels whilst witnessing the plight of the person involved. If they do not intervene, their empathy and therefore distress cannot be lowered. Personal costs are feelings of self-blame or lack of respect that could occur from not helping, and the possibility of these increase with severity of situation. This model says that the higher the reward and the lower the cost, the more likely the person to act.

The bystander-calculus model is a good model for bystander behaviour, as it considers a wide range of factors. It combines physiological, psychological, emotional and rational factors to form a solid idea of why people act the way they do. Critics of this model say that it is “too mechanical”, that the idea of a set order of events before a bystander acts is not correct, as it does not account for people who say they act without thinking, on the spot. It also does not allow for true altruism at all, stating that there is always some selfish motive involved. Piliavin later admitted this was wrong, saying “true altruism- acting with the goal of benefiting another- does exist and is part of human nature.”

Another model of bystander behaviour is Latane and Darley’s cognitive model. It is also relevant to emergencies, but, as the bystander-calculus model, can be generalised for our purposes. They said that the greater number of bystanders present, the less likely for any of them to act. To support this, they conducted what is known as the ‘smoke-filled room’ experiment, amongst others. Participants agreed to take part in a study of the problems of urban life, and were placed in a room and given a questionnaire to fill out. White smoke begins to pour out of the vent. When on their own, 75% of participants reported this, with one other person, only 38% and when with two confederates who ignored it, only 10%. (Latane and Darley, 1970)

Their cognitive model of bystander intervention states that the bystander must go through 5 stages in order to intervene. The first is that the bystander must first notice the event. If they see no problem, they will act as normal. Stage two states that before offering help, the bystander needs to interpret the event as an emergency, and often look to other bystanders for this. But, if all the bystanders do this, it can appear as if nothing is wrong, as no one seems concerned.

This is known as pluralistic ignorance. Stage three is assuming responsibility. Once the fact that there is an emergency occurring is established, the bystander must think if they should take responsibility. As their research shows, the greater the number of bystanders around, the less likely one person is to assume this responsibility- perhaps for fear of embarrassment or failure. Stage four is whether or not the bystander knows how to help- can they provide the necessary comfort, medical aid or whatever else maybe required? Stage five is known as intervening and helping, whereby if the bystanders knows how to help, they can now decide what they are going to do- either intervene, do nothing, run away or indirect intervention.

Within this framework, Latane and Darley identified some processes that could lead to the bystanders being apathetic, standing by and doing nothing. These include diffusion of responsibility- if there are other bystanders present, one individual will not feel that the responsibility to act is solely upon them-, audience inhibition- fear of messing up in front of other people-, and social influence- the idea that an individual will conform to the majority, even in the case of an emergency when the majority stand and do nothing.

In support of this model, there is a lot of wide-ranging research evidence, both experimental and real world, that support it. Also, findings related to different situations do not contradict this model, but rather refine it, ie bystanders with special expertise, eg a doctor, do not suffer audience inhibition. Critics have described it as being too reductionalist, trying to condense a large amount of complex ideas about human behaviour into five stages. Also, compared to the bystander-calculus model, it can be viewed as simplistic, not taking into account too many factors.

Both models have their strong points, but both are fundamentally too reductionalist. It seems doubtful that human nature can be accurately predicted in models as such, there are too many variables and factors involved in different situations and individuals that have an effect. However, these models are useful to give us some idea as to human workings and may help predict how people will respond.

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Bystander behaviour refers to the behaviour of somebody who does not feel it is their problem if someone is in need of help, therefore, they stand and observe thinking that someone else will help instead, and this occurs more often …

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Human altruism is the idea of people performing completely selfless acts, for example helping others because they feel only empathy for them and want to assist them. However it is often argued that truly altruistic behaviour doesn’t exist and there …

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