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Pandemic Playbook: A Look At The Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect is pretty much as it sounds. It refers to standing by while something, usually somewhat horrific, is going on and choosing to do nothing. The term became famous in the 1964 when a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was stabbed to death in front of her apartment building in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York. In a New York Times article at the time it was claimed that 38 people saw or heard her attack and no one called 911 or came to help her.

The Bystander Effect would be coined following the Kitty Genovese murder after psychologists showed they could reproduce similar results in laboratory research studies.

Every introductory psychology book refers to Kitty Genovese and this horrible night as well as what we would come to learn in psychology about what people do when faced with overwhelming events, fear, and a host of other emotions.

To be fair, we have all been in situations that were edgy. These are those times when to act or not to act have consequences. People often say, ‘Someone else will call for help.’ Or they say, ‘I don’t want to get involved.’ And, ‘What if the perpetrator turns on me?’ These are all legitimate and not indicators of selfish people who simply don’t care. It is normal to have fear, to not want to involve oneself in messy situations, and to take care of yourself.

The bystander phenomenon has been heavily studied in psychology. Recent studies suggest people actually do come to the aid of people. For example, in a car accident or when someone collapses on the sidewalk or is screaming for help.

The Bystander Effect is back in the news with the latest chapter of our Pandemic Playbook.

Can you be a Bystander in regards to yourself? Let me explain. What if you had breast cancer or bladder cancer or you have high blood pressure? Have you chosen to stay away from doctors, follow-up appointments, or screenings? Since the beginning of the pandemic and COVID-19 crises many people are avoiding seeing their doctors. Emergency room visits are down in most cities, trips to primary care or booking telemedicine with primary care is down, visits to specialists such as cardiologists, urologists, dermatologists, and other specialists are down. Has everyone become healthier and their symptoms simply vanished?

Physicians are worried that people are letting their fear of COVID-19 act in such a way as to make for a Bystander Effect in regards to your self and your health.

I believe we can be a bystander with ourselves. Apathy and fear are hallmarks of the Bystander Effect.

An antidote to becoming a bystander is empathy.

It seems people have become rather apathetic about their own well-being and health. Sometimes we all need a nudge. Get out there and take care of matters. Get that appointment. Have your doctors explain what they are doing to keep you from getting COVID-19. Know that doctors are going to keep you safe because it also keeps them safe. Have empathy for yourself. Not everyone entered the pandemic in perfect health. Let’s not let something horrific happen in our own life and not call 911 or get help. We can just as easily be that man or woman on the street being attacked. Or we can be that man or woman ignoring the signs of our health and well-being. Shall we step up and step in to intervene in our own well-being. I say, Yes.

I’d like to end with a quote by Susan Sontag, from her book titled, Regarding the Pain of Others.

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing “we” can do–but who is that “we”?–and nothing “they” can do either–and who are “they”?–then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”

Be well and Take Care.

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD


Pandemic Playbook: A Look At The Bystander Effect

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, Ph.D.

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, Ph.D. works in private practice as a psychotherapist. Nanette works with children, adults, adolescents, couples, and families. She also works as a consultant with public and private schools on issues ranging from suicide and violence prevention to topics on mental health issues affecting youth. She is the author of Entering Adulthood: Understanding Depression and Suicide, 1990,The Everything Self-Esteem Book with CD, 2011, and A Comparative Case Study of the Elderly Women Beggars of Central Mexico, 2006. She frequently appears on radio and television covering community mental health topics such as the Arizona wild fires in the summer of 2011 and the Gabrielle Gifford shooting in Tucson, Arizona.

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APA Reference
Burton Mongelluzzo, N. (2020). Pandemic Playbook: A Look At The Bystander Effect. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Aug 2020
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