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Brisbane campus hosts Bystander Behaviour community forum

Published:28 September 2018

Panel members at Brisbane's Bystander Behaviour community forum

What do the murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens in 1964, school bullying and corporate whistle-blowing have in common?

They all featured in a community forum on Bystander Behaviour held at CQUniversity Brisbane recently.

The murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens in 1964 became famous as a result of claims that 38 people witnessed the murder but only one called the police when it was too late. The story of Kitty’s murder allegedly inspired the creation of the US 911 emergency response number (000 here in Australia), and it definitely prompted research by social psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley as to why people didn’t take action. The results of their research was the now famous Bystander Effect where the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.

The forum highlighted the impact of the Bystander Effect in many of life’s situations - at school, at home, in our communities, in the workplace, and in business – providing strategies on how to safely and effectively intervene, and highlighting some of the work being done to mobilise people to assist.

CQUniversity’s Professor Matt Rockloff conducted Bystander Intervention research under the direction of Professor Bibb Latané, one of the original discovers of the Bystander Effect. Professor Rockloff provided the forum with an understanding of the research and the reasons why bystanders are unresponsive. The main reasons why bystanders are unresponsive in a group situation are:

• Diffusion of responsibility - a diminished sense of personal responsibility to act because others are seen as equally responsible
• Pluralistic Ignorance - inaction is viewed as most appropriate, as nobody is responding
• Audience Inhibition (or evaluation apprehension) - fear of looking foolish or inadequate
The factors which influence the decision to help or not include:
• the number of fellow bystanders (the greater the number the lower the possibility),
• whether the perpetrator is present (less likely)
• the risk of physical harm (less likely)
• in the city or in the country (more likely in the country than the city)
• bystanders are friends (more likely)
• a dangerous situation (more likely)

Professor Rockloff highlighted that the bystander effect isn’t just isolated to emergency situations. A study involving making free cheeseburger vouchers available in a lift showed that people were five times more likely to help themselves to a voucher if they were riding alone than in groups of three and twice more likely than in pairs.

The scene was set for discussing the bystander effect in different environments.

Michael Jeh, a White Ribbon ambassador, spoke on behaviours in schools and the work that is being done to overcome the bystander effect.

The Queensland Government is also encouraging Queenslanders to overcome the bystander effect and report incidents of family and domestic violence. This campaign was highlighted by CQUniversity’s Dr Heather Lovatt, Director of the Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence (QCDFV).

Dr Lovatt highlighted the reasons why bystanders don’t intervene in family and domestic violence situations. Firstly, there is ambiguity where the bystander may question whether it is indeed abuse, such as financial or emotional abuse. Secondly is group cohesiveness when a bystander finds it easy to justify that they don’t need to intervene and it may not be needed as others don’t react. Thirdly is diffusion of responsibility where the bystander views it as someone else’s responsibility to intervene. These reasons aid and abet continuation of the prevailing myths about domestic violence – domestic violence is a private matter, domestic and family violence is an accepted part of some cultures, women can just leave, and women make false claims or exaggerate their experience of family and domestic violence.

Shifting community norms was also a theme of Inspector Owen Hortz’ presentation on bystander behaviour and a policing perspective. To reduce crime, members of a community must be intolerant of criminal behaviour and that the actions of bystanders can be an effective tool in shifting community norms towards that intolerance. Inspector Hortz provided examples of the types of events where people can assist and how they can do so.

Changing an organisation’s culture from one passive of bystanding to one of active engagement by leaders and staff underpinned Richard Smallcombe’s presentation. Mr Smallcombe is Head of Human Resources at Visionstream and has a background working in the resources sector. Visonstream is a large national telecommunications infrastructure provider.  

Richard spoke about the role of leadership and the impact the bystander effect can have on a company’s reputation, staff morale and health and safety. It takes a whole of company approach from the boardroom to the workplace to be successful. Company values need to be clearly defined, consistently communicated and used as a just and fair decision-making tools. Leaders need to be trained as leaders and not just manager.

Richard provided examples from the resource sector which has seen a marked change to health and safety over the past couple of decades. There has been a change of cultural norms from an “it’ll be right” approach to one of safety first. All safety incidents are taken seriously and workers are empowered to act to prevent unsafe practices. Bystanders, ignoring unsafe practices are not tolerated. The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

Organisational culture was brought right into focus by Graham Newton’s presentation on integrity, culture and whistle-blowing. Mr Newton, a partner at McGrath Nicol has over 25 years corporate investigative and advisory experience and works closely with risk and legal teams in responding to whistle-blower complaints. In providing a brief overview of current and proposed whistle-blower protection legislation he noted that few cases have been brought before the courts under the current legislation. Drawing on events at the banking Royal Commission, Graham highlighted the key themes behind poor corporate culture as a lack of leadership and poor governance, unethical behaviour, hyper-competitive employees, and poor discipline. Consequences of fines, sanctions and collapse are possible outcomes as are serous impacts to growth and reputation.

As Theodore Roosevelt once said,” In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”