The Bystander Effect, Cognitive Biases, and Standing Up for Good

What happened last week in Portland was shocking. After a man on the light-rail train began yelling what has been described as “hate speech” at two teenage girls, he stabbed three men who tried to intervene and help. Two of them, Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, died. A third, Micah Fletcher, was critically injured. As the world learns what happened, one line of comment I’ve seen is along the lines of: This is why you don’t step in to help.

I get why people would say that. To see people who stood up and put themselves in between an aggressor and his victims only to be violently attacked makes standing up seem so much scarier than the typical reasons why people stay quiet: Because we’re embarrassed. Because we don’t want to be wrong. Because we don’t want to make things worse. Not wanting to be killed is certainly a compelling addition to the list. The bystander effect, logically flawed though it can be, exists for a reason.

But I think that if the lesson we take away from this incident is to withhold help from people who need it out of self-concern, then we will have taken exactly the wrong lesson.

From a psychological perspective, there are two reasons why. One is that we have several biases that will cause this incident to be more memorable than the thousands of times a bystander was able to successfully de-escalate a situation. These biases include the recency bias (we remember things that happened recently more vividly) and the availability heuristic (we overestimate the likelihood of something happening if we have a prominent, emotionally-charged example of it). The fact is, what statistics I can find on bystander intervention suggest that the vast majority of the time, it does not lead to violence like it did in Portland. Rather, it de-escalates the situation.

The second reason is that every time we choose to intervene or not, we’re contributing to a culture that makes it easier or harder for people to harass others in the first place. If someone knows that they will almost certainly be confronted for verbally abusing a stranger, the likelihood of them doing it decreases. And if others know that their neighbors are likely to step in to protect someone when they see such a thing happen, they themselves are more likely to step up too (see the previous list of reasons why people don’t help–many are rooted in social fears of doing the wrong thing).

That said, I do think it’s important to assess your own safety before entering a situation. If the attacker in Portland had been visibly brandishing a weapon during the verbal abuse, then a more effective bystander intervention might have been calling the police. The answer is not always to put yourself directly in the middle, but it is rarely to do nothing at all.

I obviously don’t know the men who died in Portland, but I would guess based on their actions, they would not want their deaths to scare people away from helping others. For their legacy to be one of inaction would be a shame.

A lot of people have shared the classic Mr. Rogers quote on helpers (there are several versions due to this being a story he shared many times), and I think it’s an appropriate close to this post:

GoFundMe for Ricky Best’s and Taliesin Namkai-Meche’s families and funeral expenses

GoFundMe for Micah Fletcher’s recovery expenses