The Bystander Effect

Contributed by Dr. David Wyrick

How many times have we asked ourselves:

  • Should I get involved?
  • Is this any of my business?
  • What right to I have to say anything?

It is amazing how often we find ourselves trying to answer questions similar to these. We typically ask these questions because we are at some level struggling with a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect.” The “bystander effect” is the phrase used to describe situations where those who witness a person in need of help choose not to provide the help that is needed. Typically the “bystander effect” occurs across a continuum of providing no help to providing insufficient help.

Millions of people around the world are in shock over the sexual assault crimes allegedly committed by Jerry Sandusky, former football assistant coach at Penn State University. It is natural for each of us to ask or challenge, “Why wasn’t more done?”; “How could people have ignored what was going on?”; “Why were children continually put at risk?”; and “Why didn’t people do the right thing?” These are fair and important questions and as difficult as it is to watch the Penn State tragedy play out, there are some extremely valuable lessons that have to be learned and reinforced.  

College students can find themselves in a number of situations (emergency and non-emergency) where their help is critical and where the “bystander effect” can present extreme danger to the victim. Examples of potential situations include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Hazing
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Discrimination
  • Physical assaults
  • Robberies
  • Sexual assaults

Preparing our student-athletes to intervene when their help is needed should be a critical component of our efforts to promote their health and well-being. A great place to start with these efforts is Step Up!, a bystander intervention developed by The University of Arizona C.A.T.S. Life Skills Program in partnership with the NCAA. Specifically, Step Up! prepares student-athletes to notice and quickly interpret emergency and non-emergency situations, to assume personal responsibility, and to apply specific skills by stepping up and doing the right thing. To learn more about Step Up! please visit


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