The Bystander Effect by Catherine A Sanderson @SandersonSpeaks @wmcollinsbooks #TheBystanderEffect #BookReview


William Collins April 16th 2020

Book Description

In the face of discrimination, bad behaviour, evil and abuse, why do good people so often do nothing?

Every day, we see examples of bad or immoral behaviour – from sexual harassment to political corruption, from negligence to bullying.

Why did no one stop the abduction of Jamie Bulger, despite many witnesses reporting they felt uneasy seeing the two-year-old’s distress?  How did the USA gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nasser, abuse hundreds of young women under his care for so long?  Why didn’t anyone intervene when David Dao, an innocent sixty-nine-year-old man, was forcibly removed from his seat on a United Airlines aeroplane and dragged down the aisle by security officers?  How did large crowds of men get away with sexually assaulting an estimated 1200 women in Cologne during the 2015 New Years Eve celebrations?

In The Bystander Effect, pioneering psychologist Catherine Sanderson uses real-life examples, neuroscience and the latest psychological studies to explain why we might be good at recognising bad behaviour but bad at taking action against it.  With practical strategies to transform your thinking, she shows how we can all learn to speak out, intervene, think outside the group mentality and ultimately become braver versions of ourselves.

Courage is not a virtue we’re born with.

A bystander can learn to be brave.

My Thoughts

This was an interesting piece of non fiction exploring the Bystander Effect – specifically what makes the majority of us unable to intervene in situations that cause us concern, and how is it that some feel able to intervene?  Like many I had always assumed this was about confidence, very confident people are able to react and assert themselves on behalf of others without fear of reprisal, right?  This is part of it but what this book outlines is a range of situations and traits that enable people to intervene.

The book is written by Catherine Sanderson an American Psychologist and while the book is a very accessible read, the author successfully weaves in aspects of research studies exploring the circumstance which promote or prevent bystander intervention.  Drawing on real life cases where either bystanders have intervened or when a situation is notable through lack of intervention, this is a fascinating look at human behaviour and a much researched area at that.

I was interested to learn that some characteristics make individuals more likely to act, think confident, strong parental attachment, less concerned by others perceptions, but that doesn’t mean the rest us can’t develop these skills.  While reading this book I found myself noticing errors in thinking that I myself make which can prevent me from speaking up.  Most notably in a meeting or learning environment I assume others are more knowledgeable and my question may expose my ignorance… I was also interested to learn there is significant movement in the ‘ability’ to act and this is through learning, and understanding the situations which enable this and our own perceptual errors.

This is all significant because it has enabled organisations to devise programmes to promote bystander intervention – think colleges where sexual assault can occur, more significantly among male dominant environments, Fraternity Houses, Football Teams where sexual assault on drunk women occurs too often and without challenge.  Research indicates that helping people to understand these situations better can promote intervention and thus reduce incidence.  Similarly instances of Police brutality have been shown to be reduced through programs which serve to encourage officers to support their colleagues, but support them in decent practices to uphold the law and to respond to instances of bad behaviour as an organisation.

I read this book as part of a readalong organised by Tandem Collective, thank you to them and the publisher for the proof copy of this book.  I think the book was enjoyed by all and proved to be a fascinating read and promoted some very interesting discussion.

About the Author

Catherine A Sanderson is the Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences (Psychology) at Amherst College.  She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a specialization in Health and Development, from Stanford University, and received both masters and doctoral degrees in psychology from Princeton University.


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