The Bystander Effect: What History Taught Us & How We Can Do Better

The Bystander Effect: What History Taught Us & How We Can Do Better 

In 2015, the infamous Stanford rape case shocked the nation. On a late night in January, Stanford student Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on the elite California college campus.

What ended up stopping the assault? Two brave bystanders stepped in, called the police, and chased and tackled Turner as he tried to escape. Brock was later convicted of the rape, but not until after local judge Aaron Persky recommended a minimal sentence for Turner because of “character references” supplied by friends and family and the fact that a prison sentence would have “a severe impact” and “adverse collateral consequences” on Turner. Persky was later recalled by local voters that were outraged by these statements.

Arguably as equally disturbing, Turner’s father referred to the assault as “20 minutes of action” and asked that his son receive probation instead of prison time.


“His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve…That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”  – Dan A. Turner, wrote in a letter arguing that his son should receive probation, not jail time for rape.


Even without the father and the judge’s statements, the truth in this case is chilling – had the bystanders not stepped forward and confronted Turner, the rape most likely would have continued/escalated and it is very possible Turner would never have been charged and convicted.

While being an ally and “doing the right thing” in an emergency situation seems obvious, we know from many studies that this is often not the case. Often referred to as The Bystander Effect, this phenomenon attempts to explain why someone witnessing a crime would not help the victim. Psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley dedicated their careers studying the Bystander Effect and have shown in clinical experiments that witnesses are less likely to help a crime victim if there are other witnesses. The Bystander Effect is often associated with the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese, with articles originally claiming that 38 witnesses heard, or witnessed the crime, but failed to intervene or call authorities. It was later discovered this number was grossly exaggerated. Despite inaccurate and hyperbolic reporting, the murder of Kitty Genovese served as a catalyst for the discussion of social responsibility and public intervention for violent crimes. At the core, it brought a disturbing question to the surface: Why do we hesitate to help victims in dire situations?


“When a person happens upon an ambiguous “situation”, the person may look to other’s behavior to see if they observe it as an emergency. An individual, seeing the inaction of others, will judge the situation as less serious than he would if alone”. – Psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley


Not everyone is going to see a sexual assault or a violent crime in progress, but everyone can be an ally. How? Here are a few simple steps to empower you to stop sexual assault:

Stay Aware of Your Surroundings and Take Action if Someone is in Distress

It’s as easy as this: if you see something, say something. When the bystanders saw Turner raping an unconscious woman, they stepped in and stopped it. If you see or suspect that someone is being sexually assaulted, do something: call 911 and/or step in if it is safe to do so. Even if you aren’t 100% sure something is assault or a crime, it is better to call and report than make assumptions and do nothing.


Understand the Signs of Predatory Grooming

While grooming is a subtle and slow process, it is very possible to recognize the signs once you know what to look for. Predators often groom not only the victim but their family and friends; creating a façade that they are a trusted friend. If you notice subtle signs of predatory grooming, speak up and say something to the parent, victim, or authorities about the alleged abuse and/or grooming.


Know How to Report Sexual Assault

Know the numbers for your local rape crisis center, child abuse hotline, and police department. Never be afraid to call 911 if you see or suspect a sexual assault is in progress.


Know How to Respond if Someone Tells You They Were Abused

The hardest first step for many survivors is the first: disclosing to a loved one that they were sexually abused. You can read more here about responding with compassion and taking action to protect children and support the survivor.