The Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect

Friday’s Column: Learning From Lehman


David Chang

In the neighborhood of Queens, New York City, 1964, a young 28 year-old woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death right outside of the apartment building where she lived. The reason this criminal incident is so well known is not because of the murder itself—as shocking as it was. The murder of Kitty Genovese is infamous because of the failure of every single one of the thirty-eight or so bystanders to take action to either stop the murder or call for help. Thirty-eight. Thirty-eight people were reported to have either seen or heard the murder happen, and yet not one person stepped in to help—or even called the police. Thirty-eight bystanders watched or listened on as Kitty’s life was taken from her that day.

This incident later became the foundation for the Bystander Effect or the Genovese Syndrome. Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley, who popularized the Bystander Effect, attribute it to two factors: diffusion of responsibility and social influence. Diffusion of responsibility basically means that the more “bystanders” there are, the less personal responsibility an individual will take on. The reason teachers love small-groups is because it is harder for individual students to diffuse responsibility among a smaller group. It’s also the same reason students don’t like small-groups, because they can’t just hide in the crowd. They have to interact, answer questions, etc. Then there is the social influence, which basically means that you will do whatever the other bystanders are doing—or not doing. In the example of Kitty’s murder, those 38 bystanders saw no one else doing anything. Even though a murder was happening right in front of them, they failed to break the conformity of that immediate circle of thirty-eight people.

How many times have we done this in our faith life? How many times have we told ourselves that we can just hide in the crowd and not have to take action? How many times have we been so afraid of stepping out of line or going against the grain that we fail to live the way we are called to live? Let me ask you, how many times did Jesus step out of the social influence, the conformity of his religious peers, and the diffusion of responsibility among the crowd—to reach out and help those who are in need? He saw them as souls having value, rather than just another outcast of society. Jesus healed the sick and the blind. The blind man at Bethsaida (Mk. 8:22-26) and Bartimaeus outside of Jericho (Mk. 10:46-52). He treated women and children as if they were creations of God rather than some property or second class citizens. He healed them and welcomed them (Mk 5:21-43, Mt. 19:13-15, Lk. 7:11-17). He approached lepers, the ultimate example of social outcasts, and treated them with civility and mercy (Mk. 1:40-45, Mt. 8:1-4, Lk. 5:12-16; 17:11-19). He touched them and healed them, something not even the priests would have dared to do. Jesus subverts our expectations at every turn, and he breaks conformity at every opportunity. He is not paralyzed at the sight of someone in need; he springs into action, and continues to work even today. When we are helpless and in need, our cries do not fall on deaf ears—not as long as Jesus is alive. And he is alive and working today.

We are called to be like Christ, and part of that calling is to break free from conformity and social influence (Rom. 12:2). We are not called to hide in the crowd. Never should our personal responsibility of righteousness and good works be diffused among the crowd. We must not have a “someone else will take care of it” mentality…ever. 

I wonder if there were any Christians among the thirty-eight bystanders who watched and listened as Kitty Genovese was killed. May we never just be another bystander. May we never let evil and falsehood prevail in our presence. I pray that we all will work to break free from the paralysis of the bystander effect, and take action, every one of us, for Christ and his Kingdom.

You know, there is a positive aspect of the Bystander Effect. Just as people are negatively affected by the diffusion of responsibility and social influence, even those can be flipped to have a positive effect. All it takes is a few people to break that social influence, and spring into action. Then the other bystanders will be pulled to spring into action themselves. It is contagious. When those few break out, it breaks the spell of the bystander effect. 

Christ calls all of us to be those few who will break the paralysis. However, we cannot break the conformity while still being a part of the world. We must first break away from the world and become one with Christ through repentance and baptism. Even after that initial step, the job is not done. As a Christian, we cannot just return to standing in the crowd as a bystander. Do not be a bystander; an onlooker; just another body in the endless sea of spectators. Remember that Jesus never froze up at the sight of suffering or need. As Jesus first broke through to reach us while we were still in sin, let us also break free from the paralysis of the bystander, and spring once more into action. 



Wednesday’s Column: Third’s Words

Gary III

Gary Pollard

It is a well-known fact that apathy destroys whole countries. Wealth lulls people into a state of complacency that avoids conflict at all costs. Government seizes the opportunity to gain power. Oppression always follows. “Hard times create tough people. Tough people create good times. Good times create soft people. Soft people create hard times” (loosely paraphrased from Those Who Remain by Michael Hopf). 

Faith is not immune. Hebrews 2.1-4 strongly warns us against apathetic faith. What happens when we lose interest in our awesome spiritual freedom? We put distance between ourselves and God. This isn’t without consequences. 

“How will we escape if we disregard our salvation?” (2.3). We won’t! Apathy is scary because the consequences arrive in plain sight and at a slow pace. We can easily see them coming, but choose to ignore them for a few more moments of complacent bliss. Once consequences arrive, they’re miserable on multiple levels. 

So, how do we get rid of apathy? Hebrews 2.5ff gives some hypes: 

  1. We’re in Charge of the World to Come (5)
  2. God Is Invested in Us (6)
  3. Jesus Is in Charge Now (7-8)
  4. Jesus Rescued Us (8-10)
  5. Jesus Sees Us As Family (11-16)
  6. Jesus Goes to Bat for Us (17-18)

Finally: “How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (10.29). 

More Than A Fish Story!

More Than A Fish Story!

Tuesday’s Column: Dale Mail

Dale Pollard

Some times it can feel like our life is a ship on the verge of breaking apart in a violent storm. Maybe we placed too much trust in the now creaking wooden planks that buckle and groan over dark turbulent waters. In a last stitch effort to stay afloat, we madly rush about throwing any non-essentials overboard.

At times we turn to anything or anyone in an attempt to discover some lifesaving advice— perhaps a miracle? If you’re a child of God, you’ve got access to salvation even in the storms. Jonah 1:4-5 depicts chaos, panic, and overwhelming fear. Those sailors on the boat with Jonah had no idea where they should turn for their salvation. With each passing moment their ship threatened to burst into splinters and “each one cried out to his god” (v. 5).

But Jonah? He’s asleep. He has some kind of knowledge and relationship with the Creator, but he doesn’t fully understand how powerful his God really is.

The application, then, is humbling. Today our communities are filled with people whose lives are rocked and they’re looking for a savior with lifesaving power. They turn to the things in which they’ve placed their trust, and to no avail. How many of us hold the answers they need, but at times find ourselves spiritually sleeping— selfishly keeping this message to ourselves?



Neal Pollard

A fire requires just a few basic things to keep going—starter, combustible material, oxygen, and maintenance.  It can take a while to get a fire started, but it needs ventilation to get going and stay going.  After it’s caught, the fire must be cared for and tended.  Otherwise, the fire dies.

Paul says something interesting to Timothy as he writes a last letter to his spiritual son.  In it, he urges the young preacher to “kindle afresh the gift of God” (2 Tim. 1:6).  The word “kindle,” found only here, means “to cause to begin or blaze again” (BDAG, n. pag.). Josephus uses this word to speak of Herod the Great who, after killing his beautiful wife in a jealous rage, eventually “his affections were kindled again; and indeed the flame of his desires for her was so ardent” addressed her affectionately as if she were still alive (War of the Jews, 1.444; See also Josephus, Ant. 8, 234 and 1 Clement 27:3).  Paul is most concerned that Timothy was in danger of losing his spiritual passion, and he writes him to reignite the flame.  Perhaps the fire had already gone out.  What’s interesting is what Paul does to try to help rekindle Timothy’s fire.

  • SUPPLICATING (1:3).  Paul tells Timothy he prayed for him day and night.  Not only was he praying, he tells Timothy he’s praying for him.
  • SUPPORTING (1:4).  It had to help Timothy to know how much Paul longed to see him.  Timothy may have felt alone at Ephesus, without faithful fellowship and Christian companionship. Knowing of Paul’s desire for a joyous reunion, especially Paul’s recall of Timothy’s previous emotional engagement (“your tears”), may have been fire-starter!
  • STIRRING UP (1:6-14).  The mentor challenges the minister to raise the bar.  He says, “Don’t be ashamed” (8; Onesimus wasn’t, 18, and Paul wasn’t, 12).  He says, “Retain the standard of sound words” (13). Then he says, “Guard the treasure” (14; cf. 1 Tim. 6:20).

Paul did everything he could from within prison walls to support a struggling saint whose spirit was soggy and smoldering.

Do you know any Christians whose fire is going out or maybe has already been extinguished?  Have you wondered what you might do for them?  Follow Paul’s pattern.  Pray for them, then gently let them know you are.  Try to spend time with them, if they’ll let you.  Then, as a spiritual, self-examining one (Gal. 6:1), appeal to their courage, the trustworthiness of divine truth, and the impact that word will have in keeping them on course in fulfilling their true purpose in life.

If I ever find myself struggling and wavering, I will want a Paul to do for me what I read about in 2 Timothy 1.  However hardened sin might make my heart, I hope I will still realize—if only deep inside—that my most important objective is to be ready for heaven when I die.  I would hope I could still be reached by a caring Christian who wouldn’t let my fire go out permanently!




Neal Pollard

It is said that when Dorothy opened the door to Oz and the movie’s colors went from sepia to Technicolor the audience gasped and that many stood up and applauded.  Moviegoers had never seen a movie in color before.  We take color movies for granted, but 75 years ago it was new.

Can you remember how excited you were to be able to surf the internet in the early 1990s.  A page would load in mere minutes.  Dial-up was such an innovation.  Smartphone, tablet, and laptop users scoff, nay cringe, at the thought of such primitivity today.  We are creatures cultivated by conditioning.  What was once fresh and new can all too quickly become stale and old.

Did you grow up in the church or did you come to Christ through your own investigation or someone’s love and concern?  Perhaps you can boast of being a third, fourth, fifth, or more generation Christian.  You were raised knowing God’s plan of salvation, will for worship, and pattern for daily living.  Perhaps it can at times seem like “old hat” and cause us to take the great blessing of salvation for granted.

One who came to Christ as a teenager or an adult may often have a special, intense appreciation for their “new” discovery.  Over the course of time (and even generations), we may have to fight apathy and complacency. We can forget the joy and excitement of forgiveness or the feelings of peace and hope.  If we “inherited” our faith, we may have to work harder at understanding just what a blessing we had handed to us by our parents and strive to appreciate what we may be taking for granted.

Understand that the blessing of salvation is more wonderful than anything we can imagine.  Nothing new or better can follow that.  The challenge is always for us to maintain appropriate appreciation for such atonement!  Is it still new or do you maybe need to renew?