Public aggressions : bystanders intervene in nine-out-of-ten public fights to help victims


Bystanders will intervene in nine-out-of-ten public fights to help victims of aggression and violence say researchers, in the largest ever study of real-life conflicts captured by CCTV.

The findings overturn the impression of the “walk on by society” where victims are ignored by bystanders.

Instead, the international research team of social scientists found that at least one bystander – but typically several – did something to help.

And with increasing numbers of bystanders there is a greater likelihood that at least someone will intervene to help.

A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement and Lancaster University examined unique video recordings of 219 arguments and assaults in inner cities of Amsterdam (Netherlands), Lancaster (UK) and Cape Town (South-Africa).

Lead author Dr. Richard Philpot of Lancaster University and University of Copenhagen, said: “According to conventional wisdom, non-involvement is the default response of bystanders during public emergencies.

Challenging this view, the current cross-national study of video data shows that intervention is the norm in actual aggressive conflicts.

The fact that bystanders are much more active than we think is a positive and reassuring story for potential victims of violence and the public as a whole.

We need to develop crime prevention efforts which build on the willingness of bystanders to intervene.”

Security cameras in the urban environments of Lancaster (UK), Amsterdam (Netherlands) and Cape Town (South-Africa) captured aggressive public conflicts.

In 91% of situations, bystanders watching the incident intervened in several ways including:

  • physically gesturing for an aggressor to calm down
  • physically blocking an aggressor or pulling an aggressor away
  • consoling the victim

The research further showed that a victim was more likely to receive help when a larger number of bystanders was present.

Dr. Philpot said:

“The most important question for the potential victim of a public assault is ‘will I receive help if needed?’

While having more people around may reduce an individual’s likelihood of helping (i.e., the bystander effect), it also provides a larger pool from which help-givers may be sourced.”

The study also found NO difference in the rates of intervention between the three cities, even though inner city Cape Town is generally perceived to be less safe.

Researchers suggest that it is not the level of perceived danger that sets the overall rate of helping, rather it is any signal that the situation is conflictual and requires intervention.

The consistent helping rate found across different national and urban contexts supports earlier research “suggesting that third-party conflict resolution is a human universal, with a plausible evolutionary basis”.

In contrast to the idea that we live in a ‘walk-on by society’ – where people never get involved – the high levels of intervention found in this study across different national and urban contexts suggests that intervention is the norm in real-life inner-city public conflicts.

interventions in violence prevention

Bystanders have received growing attention as a potential means of violence prevention. Amongst efforts oriented towards the primary prevention of domestic and family violence, sexual violence and other forms of interpersonal violence, mobilising bystanders to prevent and respond to violence or to the situations and factors which increase the risk of violence taking place (‘bystander intervention’), is understood as an important form of primary prevention and is an increasingly prominent strategy.[196]

In the field of violence prevention, strategies focused on bystander intervention have been primarily developed in relation to specific forms of violence, particularly physical and sexual violence and related forms of coercion and abuse between adults who know each other.

However, there has been less attention on bystander intervention for other forms of interpersonal violence such as male-male public violence, child sexual abuse and sexual

Bystanders, in the violence prevention literature, are understood to be individuals who observe an act of violence, discrimination, or other problematic behaviour, but who are not its direct perpetrator or victim.[197] 

Rather, bystanders are onlookers, spectators or otherwise present in some sense. However, in some accounts of bystander intervention, the term ‘bystander’ expands to include those who directly perpetrate violence. For example, in a revision by McMahon and colleagues [198] of a scale for measuring bystander behaviour first developed by Banyard and colleagues, several items regarding individuals’ own practices of sexual consent were included. Such accounts blur the line between bystanders to violence and perpetrators of violence. In practice of course, individuals who act as prosocial bystanders, intervening in others’ violent and violence-supportive behaviours, should ‘put their own house in order’, ensuring that they do not use violence themselves.

Notwithstanding this conflation of terms, it is preferable to reserve the term ‘bystander’ for those who are not directly involved in the violence in question.

Work on bystanders to violence distinguishes between ‘passive’
bystanders, who do not act or intervene and ‘active bystanders’ who
take action. Active or ‘pro-social’ bystanders may take action to:

  1. Stop the perpetration of a specific incident of violence;
  2. Reduce the risk of violence escalating and prevent the physical,
    psychological and social harms that may result; and
  3. Strengthen the conditions that work against violence

The following section addresses how bystander interventions are framed as various levels of prevention, the specific behaviours of bystanders that can be encouraged and supported, the kinds of strategies that have been employed in the violence prevention area and the effectiveness of these strategies.

The framing of bystander intervention as prevention

Efforts to prevent and reduce domestic violence and sexual violence in the past two decades have been marked by a growing emphasis on both the primary prevention of these forms of violence and on the need to engage men in a range of prevention strategies. The increasing prominence of bystander intervention is informed by both these emphases.

In the last two decades, prevention has become a central focus of community and government efforts to address men’s violence against women.

This development reflects the recognition that it is important to not only respond to the victims and perpetrators of violence, but also work to prevent violence from occurring in the first place. Efforts have been made to address the underlying causes of violence, in order to reduce its occurrence and ultimately, to eliminate it altogether. Prevention work has only become possible because of years of hard work and dedication by survivors, advocates, prevention educators and other professionals.[200] 

It is important to note however, that primary prevention efforts complement, but do not replace or take priority over, work with victims and survivors.

Activities to prevent and respond to violence can be classified in a number of ways. One of the most common is a three-part classification of activities according to when they occur in relation to violence:[201]

  • Before the problem starts: Primary prevention
    • Activities which take place before violence has occurred to
      prevent initial perpetration or victimisation.
  • Once the problem has begun: Secondary prevention
    • Immediate responses after violence has occurred to deal with
      the short-term consequences of violence, to respond to those at risk and to
      prevent the problem from occurring or progressing.
  • Responding afterwards: Tertiary prevention
    • Long-term responses after violence has occurred to deal with
      the lasting consequences of violence, minimise its impact and prevent further
      perpetration and victimisation.

Primary prevention strategies are implemented before the problem ever occurs.

In relation to violence by boys and men against girls and women for example, these early strategies aim to lessen the likelihood of boys and men using violence, or girls and women suffering violence, in the first place.

Therefore, primary prevention strategies strive to circumvent violence[202], remove the causes or determinants of violence, prevent the development of risk factors associated with violence and /or enhance protective factors against violence.[203] 

They are successful when the first instance of violence is precluded.[204]

Secondary prevention focuses on early identification and intervention, targeting those individuals at high risk for either perpetration or victimisation and working to reduce the likelihood of their further or subsequent engagement in or subjection to violence.

In contrast, tertiary prevention is centred on responding after violence has occurred. Activities focus on responding to, or treating the problem, minimising the impact of violence, restoring health and safety and preventing further victimisation and perpetration.[205]

Returning to the notion of whistle blowing outlined in Part 3, whistle blowing can be located primarily within secondary and tertiary forms of prevention, given that actions widely associated with whistle blowing take place at or after the time of specific incidents of wrongdoing.

At the same time, as with bystander intervention, one could also understand whistle blowing in a wider sense to include actions taken in order to prevent such incidents from
occurring in the first place or to change the antecedents of them, thus ‘stretching’ the notion of whistle blowing to include its contributions to primary prevention.

Depending on the particular form they take, bystanders’ pro-social actions may be understood in terms of any of these three forms of prevention.

Most attention to bystanders has focused on their action or inaction at or after the time of specific violent incidents, thus locating bystander intervention within secondary and tertiary forms of prevention.

Bystanders can contribute to secondary and tertiary prevention by acting to reverse progress towards violence and to reduce its impact.

However, bystander intervention is also identified as a strategy of primary prevention precisely because bystanders can take action to prevent initial perpetration or victimisation. An emphasis on the primary prevention of men’s violence against women directs attention to the ways in which bystanders can further contribute to primary prevention by working to strengthen the social conditions that work against violence occurring.[206] 

It invites a focus on the roles individuals can play, not just in responding directly to victims
and perpetrators, but in challenging the attitudes and norms, behaviours, institutional environments and power inequalities which feed into violence against women.

Behaviours in bystander intervention

Approaches to bystander intervention in the field of violence prevention show some terminological and conceptual diversity, if not vagueness.

One area of complexity is the nature of bystander interventions at various levels.

As explained above, bystanders may intervene productively at various points along the spectrum from primary to secondary and tertiary prevention.

It is widely recognised that bystanders can intervene not only in violent behaviour but in the wide range of other behaviours which sustain violent behaviour, such as sexist and violence-supportive jokes and comments to domineering and controlling behaviours by intimate partners in relationships.

However, there has been relatively little attention to what kinds of bystander behaviours are relevant for these different forms of prevention and there has been little examination of
how such interventions may be mobilised and encouraged.[207]

Another area of conceptual diversity concerns whether bystander interventions are seen as individual, collective or cultural.

In research and programming regarding ‘bystanders’ in the field of violence prevention, bystanders typically are understood to be individual people and there is relatively little framing of bystanders also in terms of collective or institutional actors.

At the same time, the notion of workplaces or organisations as passive or prosocial bystanders is evident for example in Powell’s review.[208] 

It is taken for granted in violence prevention scholarship that men’s violence against women is sustained in part by institutional and collective factors and forces and that addressing these therefore is crucial to primary prevention.[209]

Plausibly, one could stretch the concept of ‘bystander’ such that it applied also to organisations and indeed to entire cultures.

This definitional move would have value in highlighting the roles of organisations and cultures in allowing and sustaining such behaviours as domestic violence or sexual harassment and their collective (and indeed legal) responsibilities to change. However, applying the term ‘bystander’ to collective entities only makes sense if there are ways in which such entities have agency or the capacity to act.

Indeed, the notion of the bystander risks losing its value when applied to entities such as entire cultures where a collective capacity to act is either diffuse or non-existent. Therefore, in this discussion the term ‘bystander’ is reserved for individuals and for institutional entities with some degree of collective agency such as specific organisations or workplaces.

Existing strategies involving bystander intervention

The growing prominence of bystander intervention is informed by an increasing emphasis in violence prevention on the roles men in particular can play in preventing men’s violence against women.[210] 

This emphasis is visible in both community-based violence prevention programming and state and national plans for the prevention of violence against women.[211]

Primary prevention strategies aimed at men typically emphasise that most men do not use violence against women and that non-violent men can play a positive role in building a world where such violence is unthinkable. In one typical account for example, men have three roles to play: ‘Men can prevent violence against women by not personally engaging in violence, by intervening against the violence of other men and by addressing the causes of

The second and third of these effectively constitute forms of bystander intervention.
Bystander intervention (whether framed in these terms or not) then becomes an
obvious way in which to mobilise non-violent men’s actions to prevent violence. Bystander approaches are evident particularly in the growing number of anti-violence men’s groups and networks emerging in North America and elsewhere.[213]

Efforts to engage men in the prevention of men’s violence against women have used a wide variety of strategies, but the most common strategies involve various forms of community education, defined broadly here to include face-to-face educational groups and programs and communication and social marketing.[214] 

Appeals to men as bystanders to other men’s violence and violence-supportive behaviour are evident in the curricula and content of a range of face-to-face and media-based initiatives. In addition, some programs centre entirely on a bystander approach.

To give some examples, prevention efforts may address rape-supportive attitudes and norms through public information and awareness campaigns in mass media or in particular contexts such as sports and workplaces, education programs, or ‘edutainment’.

They may address gender inequalities and patriarchal power relations through policies promoting gender equality, skills training in respectful relationships, or community development and the mobilisation of women’s and men’s networks for change.[215]

Bystander intervention strategies vary along at least two axes: (1) the populations and settings to which they are addressed; and (2) the strategies they use to effect change. In terms of targeted populations, the majority of educational programs with a bystander intervention component are addressed to children and young people and in school and university settings.

Violence prevention education is particularly well developed on college and university campuses in the USA and a number of notable bystander intervention programs in the US take place primarily in such settings, such as Bringing in the Bystander[216] and The Men’s

Another prominent bystanders program among young adults is the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program among student athletes and student leaders.[218]

Many violence prevention education programs among young people include components intended to foster individuals’ prosocial bystander behaviour.
To give a prominent US example, the campaign organised by Men Can Stop Rape, involves a multi-session education program involving ‘Men of Strength’ clubs and a social marketing campaign focused on the theme, ‘My strength is not for hurting’. Similar Australian examples include the Sexual Assault Prevention Program for Secondary Schools[219] and Sex & Ethics.[220]

In addition, some violence prevention initiatives are focused particularly on the creation of settings and contexts which are conducive to prevention, including bystander intervention. A prominent and innovative Australian example is the Australian Football League’s (AFL) Respect and Responsibility strategy.

The strategy includes the introduction of model anti-sexual harassment and anti-sexual discrimination procedures across the AFL and its Clubs, the development of organisational policies and procedures to ensure a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for women, changes to AFL rules relating to problematic or violent conduct, the education of players and other Club officials, the dissemination of model policies and procedures at community club level and a public education program.[221] 

Respect and Responsibility addresses bystander intervention in two ways: first, by promoting intervention skills among the players and others it educates and second, by
establishing responsibility for preventing violent and disrespectful behaviours directed towards women at the level of the sporting organisation as a whole.

In Australia, various other violence prevention programs are intended to generate change at the level of particular settings or organisational contexts (religious institutions, workplaces, schools and so on).[222] 

It is unclear to what extent such programs explicitly address individual bystanders to violence, but a typical element in their efforts is encouraging participants to intervene in others’ violence or violence-supportive behaviours.

Some prevention programs frame their efforts in terms of creating institutional environments and cultures which are conducive to individuals’ bystander behaviours, such as some schools programs addressing bullying and other forms of violence or

The second major axis along which bystander intervention programs vary is the types of strategies used to effect change.

The vast majority of existing violence prevention initiatives involving or focusing on bystander intervention rely on one or more of three streams of action to effect change: face-to-face education, social marketing and communications and policy and law.

This likely reflects the character of violence prevention in general, with most efforts relying on these strategies rather than other strategies such as community development and mobilisation. Within these three streams of prevention, there is further diversity in the actual processes used. Within face-to-face education, existing strategies include:

  • Strategies to build individuals’ skills in behaving as active
    bystanders and their perceived capacity to do so (their self-efficacy);
  • The formation of groups or clubs of individuals who act as peer-based
    educators, mentors and supporters in local contexts such as schools and
  • ‘Buddy’ and befriending schemes;
  • Public commitments or pledges to speak up and act in relation to

social marketing and communications strategies, strategies include:

  • Media materials (print, radio, etc.) designed to encourage an orientation
    towards and involvement in pro-social bystander intervention in particular
    contexts such as a school or university;
  • Media materials directed to larger audiences across communities and

A third stream of prevention addresses itself to collective and institutional contexts, as noted above, through policy and law.
While it often uses the strategies to encourage bystander intervention which have already been discussed, it also relies on additional strategies including:

  • Policies and institutional commitments;
  • Legal and institutional sanctions (for example for workers, managers, or
    sports players);
  • Management plans and processes for particular institutional contexts (such
    as classrooms, among sports players and so on);
  • Law and legislation, including mandatory reporting and ‘bystander

Some violence prevention initiatives focused on bystander intervention use multiple strategies, such as both face-to-face education and social marketing.

For example, Bringing in the Bystander above is complemented by a poster campaign
titled Know Your Power: Step In, Speak Up.[226] 

Men Can Stop Rape’s education program is complemented by its ‘My strength is not for hurting’ media campaign, although the latter is focused on young men’s own practices of consent and respect rather than their intervention as a bystander.

The effectiveness of existing strategies involving bystander intervention

In addressing bystander interventions in violence prevention and how they may translate to workplace sexual harassment, it is important to consider the extent to which strategies to date have been effective.

A challenge in establishing this is that evidence regarding the effectiveness of violence prevention efforts in general is limited. Few interventions have been formally evaluated and existing evaluations often are limited methodologically or

Nevertheless, there is a small but growing body of evidence demonstrating that bystander intervention strategies can increase participants’ willingness to take action, their sense of efficacy in doing so and their actual participation in prosocial bystander behaviour.

Some evaluation studies involve simple comparisons of participants’ pre- and post-program
attitudes and beliefs, while more sophisticated studies use experimental designs in which participants are compared to a control group who did not undergo the education program. Some studies also are methodologically more robust in using standardised measures of impact, including longer term follow-up of participants, or examining mediators of change. Some examples of evaluations include the following:

  • US college students were trained in the Bringing in the Bystander program to
    recognise potentially problematic situations as they were developing and to
    intervene safely in disrespectful and sexually coercive interactions. Students
    showed significant increases in positive bystander behaviour and reductions in
    rape-supportive attitudes and beliefs compared to students who had not received
    the training.[228] In a further,
    pilot study without a control group, the program showed positive results among
    university students in fraternities and sororities and a men’s athletic
  • Young men who participated in the 16-week ‘Men of Strength’
    clubs organised by Men Can Stop Rape showed improvements in their self-reported
    likelihood of intervening to prevent violence against women. Pre- and
    post-program data showed that they were now more likely to intervene when: a
    young woman was touched inappropriately by her male peers; a man bragged about
    how far he got with his girlfriend on their last date; or when a young man
    called another man negative
  • In a non-experimental evaluation of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP)
    program among male and female high school students, after the program
    participants felt more capable of confronting harassing or disrespectful conduct
    and had greater knowledge of violence against women and reduced
  • College men who attended The Men’s Program reported a greater sense of
    bystander efficacy and willingness to intervene than a control group of men, as
    well as showing declines in rape myth

More information: Richard Philpot et al, Would I be helped? Cross-national CCTV footage shows that intervention is the norm in public conflicts., American Psychologist (2019). DOI: 10.1037/amp0000469

Journal information: American Psychologist
Provided by Lancaster University


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