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Self-help guide to countering the bystander effect

Trigger warning: Sexual harassment, catcalling

As young women, there will always be a concern for our safety in unexpected situations — a constant worry that we will be thrown into an uncomfortable situation where conflicting interests and opinions could lead to harassment. Those situations may include persistent cat-calls, strangers following you at night, a group of pushy individuals approaching you in a club or an acquaintance making suggestive remarks or acting inappropriately. 

Though help from a stranger could put an end to the harassment, we cannot always rely on them to act first. Recent psychology and sociology studies have shown that bystanders might choose to not intervene in an emergency situation due to several factors. This is why it is important to understand how the bystander effect works and how the factors influence these behaviours.

Understanding the bystander effect

The bystander effect is a phenomenon where the presence of other people might discourage an individual from intervening in an emergency. 

The first factor contributing to this phenomenon is called the evaluation apprehension, where a substantial amount of fear, uncertainty or prejudice in a bystander prevents them from acting. They are either worried about misinterpreting the situation or being negatively judged for interfering with the situation. 

The second factor is the pluralistic ignorance whereby a bystander relies on the reactions of other people around them to gauge an ambiguous situation, which pushes them to follow the actions of a crowd. However, in a situation where everybody is waiting on somebody to intervene, no actions will be taken. 

The third factor is the diffusion of responsibility where the distribution of moral and social responsibility falls among a crowd of people. With more bystanders, the sense of personal responsibility to help that an individual diminishes. This leads to the lack of actions taken.

4 tips to countering the bystander effect:

1. Be firm in saying “No”

The most important thing to do is to send a clear message across, communicating your discomfort and disagreement towards the situation. Your replies should not be too friendly or aggressive if your intention is to disengage with the situation. If a person pushes themselves onto you, causing you to be visibly uncomfortable, you need to firmly communicate your point across:

“Stop it, I’m uncomfortable with what you are doing.”

“I do not wish to continue this conversation.”

2. Attracting attention from others through noises and eye contact

If the situation continues to escalate and you begin to feel the need for outsider intervention, try creating noises to attract the attention of a stranger. For example, you can call out to someone, shout or scream for help. The second way to catch a stranger’s attention is by making direct eye contact with them. By doing so, you  establish a connection with them, which might increase their desire to help you as you seeked them out among the crowd. 

“Excuse me miss!”

“The guy in glasses! Yes you!”

3. State your relationship and circumstances with the involved

After attracting a stranger’s attention, you can help them understand the situation by stating your relationship and circumstances with the person harassing you. Avoid ambiguity by making clear statements such as:

“I do not know this person.”

“He’s harassing me.”

“Can you walk me to a crowded area, I’m being followed.”

4. Using the effect of collective and connected identity

A collective identity is a group of people who share a common interest or belief. They can be a group of young women, students, k-pop fans, marvel fans (you can observe this from the way that they act or look or the things that they wear). Seeking help from a group of people with a common ground produces a feeling of “we-ness” and empathy. A connected identity occurs when a stranger connects with the victim through the relationships that they have in their own life. For example, a young teen might try to seek help from someone who is a parent, or a woman from another woman or a couple. People have a tendency to empathize with the victim if they belong to a collective or connected identity.


If you happen to be in a situation where you are able to call for professional help, please do not hesitate to call the police at 999 for immediate police assistance or message 71999 for when it is not safe to talk. While there are tons of good-natured people out there that are willing to go out of their way to help another person, as a young woman, it is still important to educate ourselves in matters that concern our own safety. Our awareness and knowledge in perceiving a situation will only help to increase our sense of security and confidence in extricating ourselves out of a precarious predicament.

andrea leong

Nanyang Tech '22

Constantly tired, could lie in bed all day and still be tired. If someone is to write a story about her, she would like to be identified as a pebble size rock. And her friends would be the protagonist of the story, carrying her around in their pockets while they travel around the world. – Inspired by Suga & V's conversation
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