The second reason people fail to interpret events as emergencies worthy of intervention is conformity. Much has been written of conformity – most famously the Asch Study in which individuals discuss the lengths of lines and conform to the answers of those around them. A lesser known study applies directly to bystander behavior – the Latane and Darley “Smoke-Filled Room” study. In this study, individuals were placed in a waiting room in one of two conditions – alone, or with confederates (individuals who were “in on the joke,” so to speak). After a few minutes waiting, smoke began entering the room through a vent. Those in the “alone” condition immediately got up and said something to someone or left the room 75 percent of the time. But in the “with others” condition, the confederates would sit silently and pay no attention to the smoke. The research subject would notice the smoke, but then notice that everyone else seemed to be paying the smoke no mind. In such conditions, less than 10 percent of research subjects said or did anything related to the smoke. The reason they did not say or do anything is often mistakenly attributed to diffusion of responsibility (I assumed someone else would do something), but the inaction was actually due to conformity. They looked around to see how everyone else interpreted the situation. When they surmised that they were the only person interpreting the smoke as a problem, they conformed to the norms around them and decided that the smoke was not a problem after all. It isn’t that they assumed someone else would do something (diffusion of responsibility) – they assumed that nothing needed to be done because of the inactions of those around them. By conforming to the responses of those around them, they failed to correctly interpret a dangerous situation as an emergency worthy of their intervention.
Bystander training probably isn’t a total waste of time, and that is not the concept that I want people to take away from this post. What I want people to understand is that bystander training is only effective when it is done as part of a broader prevention program that begins with helping students understand the critical issues involved in any particular behavior. Every time I do bystander training, and I offer a scenario involving a dangerous situation and ask them how they could intervene, students are immediately able to come up with several ideas, many of which are really thoughtful and creative. Students don’t need to be trained on how to intervene. They know how to intervene. What they don’t always know is when or why they should intervene. If we spent more time helping them understand the critical issues that would give them a better understanding of when to intervene, and less time teaching them what they innately already know, then our prevention efforts would be drastically more impactful.