Making Bystander Intervention Effective

For anyone in the Louisville area, I strongly recommend going to the next Green Dot training hosted by The Center for Women and Families. I attended their day-long session yesterday and was pleasantly surprised at what I got out of it, especially since I’ve sat through more bystander intervention trainings than I can count over the past few years as a product of attending a university which is desperately seeking to overcome its reputation for ignoring sexual assault. I had always felt that these training sessions were irritatingly surface-deep and uninformative, providing gems of wisdom like “watch out for your friends at parties” and – on a good day – “if you see behavior that looks coercive, step in and say something.” Admittedly, it’s always good to remind people that they may want to designate a responsible person to look out for their friend group at the local club, or that they can feel empowered to intervene in situations even when they don’t know any of the participants. But I could never shake the feeling that these training programs operated off the conception that as soon as people realize that a problem exists, common sense will do the rest – ignoring the fact that oftentimes people are aware of a problem, but lack the understanding of how they can solve it.

The Need for Getting Involved

Make no mistake: sometimes it is difficult to discern whether a situation is indicative of dating violence or other forms of intimate partner violence, and a good bystander intervention program will educate participants on how to identify these scenarios when they occur. This is one thing that my college violence prevention programs did a decent job of reinforcing – they illustrated the various types of violence which may exist, from an abusive relationship to a coercive hookup. The Green Dot training took things a step further and discussed in more detail how to recognize the signs of dating abuse when they occur, which is something the other programs paid only cursory attention to and which is oftentimes more difficult than recognizing a couple at a party where one member is clearly too drunk to give consent.

But a good violence prevention program needs to go beyond the mere identification stage and provide concrete advice on how to intervene in potentially violent or abusive relationships when they occur. We’d all like to think that we’re good enough people to step in when a situation is clearly abusive or violent, or at least good enough people to do something – like calling the police or asking an authority figure to call security. But the unfortunate truth is that even in the clearest instances of IPV, people rarely intervene. ABC’s “What Would You Do?” conducted an ‘experiment’ on the subject by secretly filming two actors pretending to be a couple sitting on a bench in a public park, with the man pretending to be increasingly violent toward the woman. Shockingly, they found that only 10 percent of the people passing by the scene would intervene –many people clearly knew that something was wrong, but refrained from even calling the police. Domestic violence advocates will report witnessing scenes of clear and evident physical abuse where the vast majority of passerby simply walk or drive by.

This is the real issue when it comes to preventing IPV. It’s easy to shrug off domestic or dating violence as something that only occurs behind closed doors, something that we won’t see happening and therefore have no obligation to correct. But the truth is that even though there are cases that will slip below the public radar, there are also cases that occur in the open and still don’t attract intervention. Even more frequently, there are cases where an issue might not be evident to the majority of people, but is evident to a close friend who needs to make the decision about whether to say something. No one can stop every single instance of violence. But we can at least make the commitment to intervening when we realize that intervention is necessary.

The Why’s of Bystander Nonintervention (and the How’s of Intervention)

Enter the Green Dot message: “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” Green Dot training focuses on the idea that there are only a few actual perpetrators of violence (‘red dot’ generators) who are vastly outnumbered by the rest of society. When these others, who aren’t actually inflicting violence upon anyone themselves, ignore and permit IPV, they generate their own ‘red dots’ which send the message throughout society that this violence will be tolerated. When, conversely, someone intervenes in an episode of violence, they generate a ‘green dot’ which helps transform society as a whole into a place that will not accept violence of any kind. People only get away with violent behaviors when others let them.

The place where the Green Dot training really steps in, though, is in identifying why people make the decision not to act. It’s easy to look at the people on “What Would You Do?” with contempt, but most people have probably been in some kind of scenario where they regretted not stepping in and intervening (in fact, one woman who actually did physically intervene in the “What Would You Do?” segment later explained that she did so because of her guilt for not intervening in a previous episode of domestic violence she had witnessed). Green Dot training explains the psychology behind ‘bystander effects,’ then addresses these obstacles when presenting intervention techniques.

Specifically, the training identifies a series of factors which prevent bystanders from intervening. There’s the typical “diffusion of responsibility” effect – typically linked to the Kitty Genovese story – in which someone is less likely to intervene if they are one of many in a group, assuming that someone else will take charge of intervention instead. The similar “pluralistic ignorance” phenomenon demonstrates that people are less likely to act on a problem if no one around them seems to be doing anything about it; unfortunately, diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance effects feed into one another to produce a perfect storm of inaction. A different, but no less pernicious, effect is “evaluation apprehension” – the fear of misinterpreting a scenario and being negatively judged as a result. And, of course, there are the ever-present fears of going against social norms or being criticized by one’s friends for getting involved in a ‘private affair,’ as well as fear for one’s safety or the safety of the person being abused. (The last concern, in fact, is an incredibly important one to address, and so I’ll discuss it briefly here to clarify any misconceptions. People sometimes don’t get involved in episodes of intimate partner violence because they are worried that this might generate backlash against the victim later on. But intervention is oftentimes an incredibly powerful tool for signaling to a victim that the abuse she is experiencing is wrong and out-of-the-ordinary, and therefore a crucial tool for helping victims to leave abuse situations.)

These bystander intervention concepts may have fancy academic backing in the form of psychological studies, but can just as easily be boiled down into a series of social and individual factors that all people experience to some degree. Green Dot training asks participants to reflect upon their experiences as bystanders and their personal limitations to identify what their weaknesses may be in future interventions. Then, the training focuses on developing responses to violent situations that mesh with individual participants’ strengths and weaknesses. For example, a participant who is afraid of drawing unwanted social attention might choose to delegate responsibility to police or more outgoing friends, while one who is worried about misjudging a situation may simply choose to distract the participants in an argument to see if that diffuses some tension.

This, to me, is the most important aspect of the Green Dot training. Just as my previous bystander intervention trainings didn’t scrape the surface of wide swathes of violence prevention and intervention, they were equally unrealistic in that they frequently seemed to expect participants to become superheroes when it came to actually stepping in and doing something. They only taught direct confrontation, ignoring the fact that asking potential bystanders to go against all of their reservations and personal limitations to stop violence might just result in bystanders not acting at all. Green Dot sent the message, on the other hand, that one is justified in doing whatever one is comfortable with – just as long as something gets done. Other bystander intervention programs should take note.

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About The Mary Byron Project

The Mary Byron Project was established in 2000 in memory of the young woman whose tragic murder led to the creation of automated crime victim notification technologies. As a nationally recognized thought leader on domestic violence, the Mary Byron Project cultivates and supports efforts that extend beyond crisis management to attack the root causes of this epidemic and help build safer, healthier communities. Solutions are within our grasp. The Mary Byron Project was established with that quest in mind.
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