Why Good Samaritans Become Bystanders


In social psychology, from some quite shocking research, is observed a phenomenon known as the bystander effect.  The bystander effect happens when someone is clearly in need of help, but instead of being good Samaritans, those around them walk on by, pretending they cannot see, haven’t noticed, cross the street, and conform to a silent social influence, to do absolutely nothing.  The consequences have proven fatal for the poor victim.

There is an expression, that the first time I heard it, I thought was one of the most awful things I’d ever heard.  I wanted to refute it out of my consciousness immediately, but it was said by a very wise and experienced high court judge, ‘that no good deed goes unpunished’.

In class, when I teach about ‘The Bystander Effect’, almost everyone responds that they couldn’t walk on by, in the sight or knowledge that someone needed help. Then I must let them know about the good Samaritan spontaneously helping someone at the swimming pool, while an unscrupulous crook took the opportunity to steal their handbag. 

There are times, of course, when we should not put ourselves in danger, but given the prevalence of mobile phones, that danger can be easily subverted by a call to the right person who can help. So why is it that essentially good people, choose to do nothing?  The words of Edmund Burke have always rung in my ears, “that the only thing necessary for evil to prevail, is for good people to do nothing”.

Recently, I’ve had a few experiences that have caused me to think more deeply about why it is that good people don’t help.  Seeing someone struggling physically, psychologically, and spiritually, I offered to help.  The first time I suggested practical support which wasn’t taken up.  The second time I gently offered psychological assistance, which was brushed off.  Being long in the analytical tooth, not needing altruistic validation, and knowing that some people in need don’t actually want to be helped, and being aware of the spiritual law of three, I made a third, less obvious but equally kind gesture, which was also turned down. I happily walked away.

To bring full clarity on subconscious intention, most of human behaviour is motivated by our desire to avoid unwanted emotions. In light of my recent experience, on reflection of The Bystander Effect, what perhaps explains the shocking apathy in the good Samaritan, is that when they have helped in the past it has cost them.  Cost them time, cost them thought-energy figuring it out for someone else, cost them effort, increased their burden, and perhaps worse, caused them to experience an unpleasant emotion like rejection, no thanks, interfering, getting it wrong, or feeling generally bothersome.

It would appear the judge was right, and whilst we choose with more conscious awareness how we do, or even if we wish to help, it’s a good opportunity for some self-reflection and progression, that underneath the strong desire to avoid unpleasantness, is the even stronger force of compassion.