Bystander Intervention

Are You a Bystander?
A bystander is someone in a crowd who sees a potentially harmful situation and does nothing. A bystander does not protect the values of safety, trust, and honor that are central to our community.

Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.
– Walter Lippmann

Tips on bystander intervention strategies

Name or identify inappropriate behavior so it isn’t just glossed over or ignored.
Create an opening for discussion.

Direct feedback in the moment may be perceived as disruptive or inappropriate, depending on the forum. Waiting may be more effective in some cases. Highlight the damaging effect of the offense, while avoiding inflammatory language or judgments.


  • Situation #1
    Someone makes a joke (e.g. involving an offensive stereotype) during class or in a social setting.

Response: “I don’t feel comfortable with that kind of humor—I am offended and/or I think someone here might have felt offended.”

  • Situation #2
    You hear someone make a cruel remark about someone while walking across campus, and the person that they were talking about seemed to overhear it.

Response: “I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but that could be hurtful to the person that you were directing that towards.”

Help someone who has been hurt or offended, and/or prevent further injury or offense.
Uphold a community norm or value, making it clear to all that others in the community do not condone such behavior.

Consider the risks of taking sides. Sometimes the need to prevent further harm immediately outweighs the potential for retaliation against either you or the aggrieved person by the offending person, but sometimes it does not, making a private word with the aggrieved person and/or the offending person later a preferable course of action.


  • Situation #3:
    A fellow student is publicly humiliated by a professor during class.

    Response: Change your seat to be next to him/her. Express to them that you felt that the comments could have been offensive, and ask if you can support them in any way to address the comment. (Note – the person may say no, and understand that is alright. At least they know that they have support.)

The Good Samaritan - Less common than you might think.

Researchers Darley & Latane conducted an experiment in which a student pretended to have a seizure and the experimenters recorded how often others stopped to help. When only one bystander was watching the scene, the student was helped 85% of the time. However, if there were five bystanders, the student was only helped 31% of the time.

Does this make sense? Shouldn't having more people present increase the chances that someone will get help?

Amazingly, this is not the case. We all take cues from those around us about how to act in different situations. In emergency situations, many things prohibit bystanders from intervening:

  • If no one else is acting, it is hard to go against the crowd.
  • People may feel that they are risking embarrassment. (What if I'm wrong and they don't need help?)
  • They may think there is someone else in the group who is more qualified to help.
  • They may think that the situation does not call for help since no one else is doing anything

With each person taking cues from people around them, a common result is that no action is taken.

What can we do about this problem? As members of the Tribe we all have a responsibility to help each other. Avoid being a bystander! Intervene regardless of what others are doing and don't be worried about being wrong; it is better to be wrong than to have done nothing at all.

I do not want to be a bystander. What can I do?
1. Take the time to understand what bias is:

Offensive graffiti

  • Use of sidewalk chalk, spray paint, markers, or any other utensil used to graffiti.

Degrading or offensive images

  • Anti-Semitic symbols, derogatory drawings, or pictures

Derogatory or offensive verbal or written comments

  • Racial, religious, or ethnic slurs, verbal or written comments about one’s sexual orientation, and physical or mental ability

Offensive jokes

Outing someone’s sexual orientation

Inappropriate references to one’s identity/expression, national origin, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability

2. If I were in this situation, would I want someone to help me?

  • If a situation makes us uncomfortable, we may try to dismiss it as not being a problem. You may tell yourself that the other person will be fine. This is not a solution. The person may need your help more than you think.
  • When in doubt, trust your instincts. When a situation makes us feel uncomfortable, it is a generally a good indicator that something is not right.
  • It is better to be wrong about the situation than do nothing.

Many people feel reluctant to intervene in a situation because they are afraid of making a scene or feel as though a person would ask for help if it were needed.

3. You have the responsibility to intervene.

  • Many people do not intervene in a potentially harmful situation because they are looking to others for cues on how to act or they believe someone else will intervene.

But it is your responsibility to act – as a Gettysburg College student we are a community of trust and safety and inclusivity. Incivility does not align with our values.

Reference for this information include:
Berkowitz, A. Understanding the role of bystander behavior. US Department of Education's 20th Annual National Meeting on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention in Higher Education, Arlington, VA

Darley, J.M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

Cialdini, R.B. (2001) Influence: Science and Practice. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon