posttitle = Not Your Daddy’s Bystander Effect titleClass =title-long len =39

Not Your Daddy’s Bystander Effect

Bystander Effect is a phenomenon where…

…individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. (source: Wikipedia)

This sounds kind of nuts, but welcome to being human. The reasons it happens are diffusion of responsibility (if others are around, maybe they’ll help… so maybe you don’t have to) and cohesiveness (if nobody else is jumping to action, maybe that’s the appropriate response…). Public Service Announcement: now that you know about the bystander effect, realize that in many emergency situations, nobody else will help. So you might as well be alone.

Anyway, I think that the bystander effect can be used as a fun metaphor or mental model to talk about some other common experiences people have, in CoZE (comfort-zone expansion) and with procrastination.

Reverse Bystander Effect: when you have to choose between people

Most of my experience with this sort of thing comes from doing social CoZE and Rejection Therapy exercises, but I think it shows up elsewhere too. So say I’m in an airport, and my challenge is to get a stranger to give me a hug. I look around, and there are a lot of strangers. Which means that my thoughts, by default, go something like this:

Hmm… there’s a person. Ahh, no, he’s on his phone.
What about her? She looks friendly… well, kind of friendly… okay maybe not that friendly…
Oh there’s a—nope, headphones.
Umm… okay, maybe that couple there? Err, wait, now they’re walking…
What about that woman? She looks kind of preoccupied, soo… maybe in a few minutes…
Let’s see… this man is holding a coffee, so that probably won’t work…

And so on. My don’t-do-uncomfortable-things module is super good at finding reasons not to approach just about anyone. Some of these are legit reasons—e.g. I think it’s a good norm to not interrupt strangers with headphones in unless you have a good reason, like something falling out of their pocket—but the point is that if I’m not paying attention my brain will find a reason even if there isn’t a good one.

I think that this is like bystander effect in that if there were only one candidate, you’d probably just do it. Because you couldn’t be reasoning that “this person isn’t the best person, I’ll find someone else.” In the hugs-in-airports instance, I was trying for 100 hugs-or-offers-thereof, which made it easier: I knew I had to go after most opportunities in order to reach that number of people.

I don’t have a lot of good ideas for how to overcome this though. Trying things like “the next person I see” or “the next man I see” or “the next person I make eye-contact with” I expect would be helpful. Also cultivating the ability to shut off the worrier module and just go for it. In most cases, the stakes are pretty low. One definitely-bad suggestion is to just address your request/offer to a whole group of people.

Temporal-Selves Bystander Effect: when there’s a crowd of future yous

The other really fun kind of Bystander Effect is related to procrastination. By “really fun” I mean “fun to think about”. It’s annoying when it happens.

First, some conceptual background: you can think of the-you-that-will-exist-tomorrow as a separate person from yourself, in the sense that you can’t currently act as them. You can do various things to influence what they’ll do but you can’t just be them yet. Then, you can also think that there are maybe 10,000 yous that will exist tomorrow, each of which can influence each other but not act directly as each other, and all of whom will tend to follow the same process when making decisions.

So say you’re about to go to bed, and you’ve got an important paper due at midnight tomorrow. You think “if I work on this most of the day, I think I can do really well.” Then you wake up. Just-got-out-of-bed-you is thinking “I have all day to do this. I don’t have to start quite yet. I want to have breakfast first…” and then just-had-breakfast you is thinking “it’s still early, I can check my email first, before I start writing,” assuming that the rest of the future-you team will take care of the paper.

Finally, as afternoon wears onto evening, it becomes less and less plausible that there is a better candidate for the task at hand. The team of 10,000 yous has gotten smaller… to the point where it’s clear that all hands will be needed on deck in order to get an okay grade at all. As the team gets smaller, it becomes easier and easier to focus on the paper.

How to combat this: designate specific selves

One thing that first-aid responders are taught is to single people out when making requests: “you! call 911!” works waaayyy better than “somebody call 911!” You can do the same thing with yourself. I once had a term paper due for one course at exactly the same time as an exam started for a different course. I knew that my implicit inner manager was not very good at resource allocation, and that by default both of these would happen last-minute. Uh-oh.

What I did to combat this was to send my friend an email saying I’d pay him $50 if I didn’t send him my finished essay by 24h before. In the email, I included a wordcount minimum, the necessary headings, and a minimum number of sources cited. This meant that I basically had to finish the paper earlier. I had now very explicitly delegated that task to a totally different team of future-Malcolms.

This was an extreme example. A simpler example could be something like “I want to do 10 pushups every day”. If your goal looks like that, then almost all of the 10,000 yous will be pretty confident that they are not the one that’s supposed to start doing pushups, until finally it’s bedtime and your going-to-bed self will protest that it is much too tired (if in fact you even remember). This is the advantage of having a clear trigger, such that it’s really unambiguous which future-you will be responsible for completing those 10 pushups. One simple trigger is an alarm on your phone. You could also do contextual triggers, like “when I put my toothbrush back after brushing”. There’s basically just one self that does that, so it’s clear that that’s the self that has been assigned the pushups.

If, for some reason, a given self can’t do the required action—maybe you get your pushup alarm while driving—then of course you need to delegate the action to some new, specific future you, probably by snoozing the alarm. Otherwise, it’ll get lost to diffusion of responsibility.

Other kinds of bystander effect

I suspect there are other places where this model could be applied. Like there’s a thing that’s kind of a cross between the other two that is like “I have a lot of things to do… where to start…? uhh, not there… not that one either… maybe facebook!”

I used to use a website called, which is what it says on the tin: you put in a list of items and it only shows you one of them at a time, with a big “done” button. I added a mode like this to Complice (the productivity app I created) because I think it’s really powerful to not have to be constantly deciding between a bunch of different actions and to instead just have one default one to do. Complice has several advantages over NDT though, most notably that your past actions get stored, rather than vanishing when you complete the task.

My todo "list" right now. There's more on it, but it's not shown.

My todo “list” right now. There’s more on it, but it’s not shown.

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.


Matt Goldenberg » 9 Aug 2015 » Reply

I’m not quite sure how this relates to your tying this things back into the bystander effect, but the important thing to notice for me in both examples is that your initial impulse is the correct one.

In the CoZE example, you have the correct impulse to approach someone, then rationalize why it would be rude

Similarly, in the paper example, the initial impulse is to work, followed by rationalizing why you have more time.

The general pattern is Correct Impulse followed by Self Deception.

For me, the solution here is to recognize the impulse, then immediately shift to system 1 “action mode”

Matt Goldenberg » 9 Aug 2015 » Reply

(continued cause I accidentally submitted) and just GO. Instead of trying to see through or route around the rationalizations, recognize that System 2 has already done it’s job and there’s no more need for it – let system 1 take over and act.

for the CoZE example, pickup has an elegant solution to this called the three second rule. If you see someone you want to approach, you count down from three, and by three you have to have started taking your first step over there. This forces you to get out of your rationalizations and into “ok I’m doing it, what’s the next step” mode.

For the paper example, The Now Habit has another excellent approach. While the 3 second rule could work here as well, the question I like to ask myself (via the now habit) after determining that I have the urge to do the paper now is “How can I get started on the very next small step.” This again shifts the brain out of thinking and rationalizing mode, and into action mode.

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