Are you a Bystander or an Upstander?

Categories: Faith issues, Family, Parenting, Personal Growth, and School.

Most of us know the story of The Good Samaritan that can be found in the Christian New Testament book of Luke chapter 10.  Jesus tells a story of a Jewish man that was mugged and left for dead along the road.  A devout Jewish man, and then a Jewish priest both passed on by without helping the injured man.  A third man passed by who was a Samaritan.  Samaritans as a group did not like Jews, and Jews didn’t like Samaritans.  However, it was this Samaritan who stopped and came to the aid of the victim along the road.  Jesus told this story to teach us what is called “The Golden Rule” of treating others the way we want to be treated.  

Is this a lesson that we need to pay attention to today in America?  I would say we certainly do.  This lesson has never been more important for us in the U.S. as it is now.  We are so polarized and divided politically, racially, and ideologically that we are moving closer to the “us against them” mentality that was just as strong as it was between the Jews and Samaritans thousands of years ago.  We focus with hostility on differences rather than acknowledge a common humanity.  More and more there is a dehumanizing attitude towards people different from ourselves.  This can lead to justifying being a “bystander” when others are in need of help.  

Social psychology has studied what is termed “The Bystander Effect”, which is what was happening in The Good Samaritan story.  The Bystander Effect is the tendency to not get involved in helping strangers.  There are two factors that can increase the Bystander Effect; 1) there are others present that are not helping or responding to the person in need and 2) a perception of time constraint.  

Numerous studies of the Bystander Effect have consistently shown that when there is a large group of people in which nobody is responding to someone’s need for help, the likelihood increases that more and more people will continue to ignore the victim.  What happens, though, when just one person responds to help?  There is an increasing likelihood that even more people will stop and help!  There are several YouTube videos about The Bystander Effect that actually show this happening in real life situations.  

This Bystander Effect happens daily in our schools.  Bullying thrives because of the Bystander Effect.  It’s becoming more common for kids to stop and video a bullying incident than to try and stop the incident.  Stopping to watch and record it is worse than pretending to not see it.  Studies show, however, that when one person stands up rather than standing by, the bully will most often stop their bad behavior.  This is true online as well as in person.  This act of intervening is called being an “Upstander not a Bystander”. 

In the 1970s, behavioral scientists at Princeton University examined how likely seminary students were to stop and help someone in need.  Over the course of several days, seminary students were given the task of preparing a brief talk about the Good Samaritan Story (note the irony) which they were to give to a large class of students.  Before they gave their talk, they met with the researcher at a separate building to get instructions about which class they were to go and deliver their talk.  The seminary students were divided into two groups at that point.  One group was told they had plenty of time and to head to the building.  The second group was told they were running late and needed to hurry to get to the class.  

On the way to the class to deliver the Good Samaritan talk, each seminary student would encounter someone in distress.  This person was an actor who was part of the study.  The purpose of the study was to assess if there would be a difference in response rate for the two groups based on perceived time constraint.  The results of the study found that most of the seminary students in the “plenty of time” group stopped to help, and almost none of the seminary students in the “hurry up” group responded to the person in need.  The factor that leads to someone being less helpful is their perception of time constraint.  If we believe we have no time, we will not help.  We prioritize our own agenda over someone’s well-being. 

Nobody wants to believe they would succumb to the Bystander Effect.  We all want to be believe we would help those in need.  There are three justifications we use to stay in Bystander mode:  “This has nothing to do with me”, “Someone else will help” and “I don’t have time for this”.  Parents, I encourage you to talk to your kids about “The Golden Rule” in action – what does it really look like to treat others as you want to be treated?  Teach your kids to be Upstanders not Bystanders.  Instead of justifying being a Bystander, help them to be Upstanders by teaching them to ask themselves “If not me, then who?”.  

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