November 1, 2021

Bystander Behaviour and Why it Matters: Explanations and Possibilities

Ramila Usoof-Thowfeek, Sumedha Jayakody, Evan Ekanayake

This article explores the impact of the ‘bystander effect’ in the face of everyday violence in Sri Lanka, and if it has the potential to create a safer society.

Every once in a while, the media splashes a story of an attack on someone. Such accounts of harassment, abuse, rape, or murder leave us all horrified, sickened, and outraged.  Few if any incidents motivate people to raise an outcry. Those that do, quickly lose steam. Time passes until the next such event and the next. These recurring stories of violent victimisation and brutality beg a few questions.

Did anyone see these incidents happen? Was there any attempt to raise an alarm, to avert them?  If you and I were at the scene of an incident, what would we do? What could we do?

In 2014, a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) on the experiences of Sri Lankan women, found that approximately, 90% of Sri Lankan women surveyed, reported being sexually harassed on public transport. Many women recounted how the experience was aggravated by the fact that nobody came to their aid or spoke up for them, despite being in a crowd of witnesses, making them feel even more vulnerable and isolated. More surprising, however, was the fact that a similar study by Oxfam in 2016 with frequent users of public transport, found that 82% of witnesses to such incidents did not intervene because they perceived these incidents of harassment to be “none of their business”.

This same attitude of non-interference and apathy is strikingly evident in many other cases of victimisation, be they of a woman being subjected to regular domestic violence privately in her own home, members of an ethnic or religious minority being harassed and victimised in public, a child being abused, or politically motivated violence. People almost always see the warning signs and sometimes they are witnesses to the event itself or know it is taking place, and yet very few, if any at all, will attempt to help the victim, get help, or raise an outcry. Contrast this however to an all too familiar scene on the streets of Sri Lanka when an accident takes place. Screeching tires, horns blaring, a bang, sounds of shattering glass, screams are heard, and within seconds, crowds gather and many helpful hands (often more than is helpful too) swing into action to assist the victims.

This phenomenon of bystander response raises further questions. When and for what issues would people react and intervene? What drives our response at a moment when we see someone else suffer, be it in an accident, in a natural disaster, or be it suffering injustice, harassment, or brutality? What factors drive a person’s decision to help or walk away? Is there a social cost to non-intervention and apathy – a cost we simply cannot afford to pay?

We invite reflection on these questions in a bid to move towards active citizenship, in a nation whose people care about matters of common concern, public interest, and matters that take one beyond one’s own personal world. We seek practical ways to build and nurture a bold concern about another’s pain and moral courage enough to speak out in the interest of someone who suffers unjustly, regardless of race religion, or any other difference.  

Pictures from the past

Moving back in time to the infamous Black July of 1983 we see poignant pictures of both cross-group helping and of non-helping as well. The now iconic pictures by Chandraguptha Amarasinghe, a Sinhala photographer, out with his camera on that fateful month, capture for history some of the darkest events of our time. Probably the most compelling picture is that of a young, presumably, Tamil man sitting naked on a curb, cowering, while a bespectacled Sinhala youth prepares with a bent knee to kick him. The perpetrator smiles at the trained camera as he prepares for his attack and an audience watches on. Amarasinghe later confirmed that indeed this man was killed. This and other photos too, by Amarasinghe have one thing in common. There was always an audience. A silent, acquiescing audience one that sometimes even comprised those who were required by the law to intervene in such a situation - such as the military or the police.

In later years Amerasinghe himself has been confronted by the obvious and uncomfortable question: What was his role in those burning situations? Was it to capture for posterity the gruesome narratives of a brutalised minority or was it to set aside his camera and enter the narrative and alter it himself? Amerasinghe’s dilemma is in many ways our own too. If we were confronted with a scene playing out before us of another’s victimisation, would we opt to be the faithful recorder of history with our smartphones and instant global reach or opt to be the agent that intervened to change history itself?

Reports of other incidents of July 1983 also clearly demonstrate that intervention and helping in such cases can save lives. Groundviews is one of few archives that compile stories of helping and intervention. Everyday Heroes: Untold Stories of Black July uses a story map that highlights instances when Sinhala people helped their Tamil neighbours, friends, colleagues, or relatives. The interventions ranged from talking down mobs from attacking people and property, giving refuge to Tamil families in their homes, and taking provisions for those who had to move to displacement camps set up around Colombo. One story from Sagara Road Colombo 4 reads:

“It was around 3 or 4 pm when they came. We were all out on the road. Opposite the Jesuit Chapel, there was a Tamil house. The priest came and stood at the gate of that house. I don’t know what he said to them, but they passed. If not for his intervention the house would have been attacked…”

Studies on Altruistic behaviour in social psychology claim that those who reach out to help others have much to gain themselves in the warmth they create for themselves (Hu et al., 2016). An overriding ethic of value for human life may embolden some to take a stand even when they do not know the victims at all. But clearly, some Sinhala families who risked reprisal and took a stand to support the victimised Tamil neighbours, friends, and colleagues did so because they either had prior relationships with those affected or had at least prior engagement with other Tamil people. This may have enabled them to identify more easily with the pain and feel empathy which caused them to be outraged by the injustice. What is clear is that having prior interactions, engagement, and relationships with those of other racial groups enables one to incorporate the “other” into a common identity.

In economic terms the devastation of July 83’ set Sri Lanka back by decades (Claiborne, 1983), but no one calculated the social cost of this rending apart of a people. Is it even possible to calculate the social cost of 27 years of war, the thousands of lives lost, the fragmentation of trust, harmony, and stability, the years of personal trauma, and corporate devastation? But Could these have been averted, or at least mitigated perhaps by a critical mass of bystanders who acted against it? Can bystanders on a bus change the culture of sexual harassment rampant in public transport? Can concerned neighbours and other bystanders prevent the incidence of child abuse, domestic violence, or violence on the streets? What is the “Bystander Effect”, and can it be utilised to create a safer society for all?

Bystander behaviour

New York in 1969, gave us another iconic tragedy that set the world thinking. A young woman, Kitty Genovese, was stabbed to death in her apartment after hours of calling out for help. The chilling fact was that the intruder entered her apartment building once, attacking her with a knife, and then returned later in the night to attack and ultimately kill her. The question that many asked, including social psychologists, Darley and Latane, was why, despite having heard Ms. Genovese’s cries for help, did not any of her neighbours get involved. A deeper investigation into the newspaper reports suggested that while calls were made to the NYPD, no one attempted to reach her physically, get her to safety, and possibly save her life.

Darley and Latane (1968), two social psychologists who were inspired by the Kitty Genovese incident, coined the term Bystander Behaviour to describe the inaction of individuals in situations where someone needs help and protection. The key feature of this bystander behaviour is the propensity for people not to intervene even when someone was obviously in need of help, simply because there were others present too and people would assume that someone else would intervene. Darley and Latane argue that the more people were present in a situation, the less likely any one person was to get involved in helping behaviour.

A young attacker of July '83 looks back

Nirmal Dewasiri, historian and scholar has been one of the few to own up to his complicity in the Black July 83 attacks. In a rare YouTube video posted on the Vikalpa channel Dewasiri discusses how as a young student he and his classmates were involved in the attack on a small boutique owned by a Tamil man in the Rawathawatta area of Moratuwa on that day in July 83’. In his description, he alludes to their audience, which included their teachers and military personnel. Dewasiri recounts that the presence of his own schoolteachers and law enforcement officers was very significant, simply for their silence in the face of the criminal acts young Dewasiri and his buddies perpetrated. Adults who would normally check them for lesser misdemeanours were silent in the face of their racially instigated attacks on the Tamil boutique in Moratuwa. They were bystanders whose silence was the tacit acceptance and acquiescence that perhaps fuelled the young lawbreakers.  

Interestingly enough, even in this unusual revelation, the full force of the act of Dewasiri and his buddies is not called out for what it is, but with a smile and shy giggles the interviewer refers to this incident as things are done in childish naughtiness… or “kolu kamata” the Sinhala equivalent of ‘boys would be boys´.  Small wonder then that despite Dewasiri’s passionate assertions in this interview that “this type of event will never be repeated,” recent history repeatedly scoffs at him through similar attacks against Christian churches, Muslim communities, and businesses and these continue to date.

The most recent of these attacks was witnessed right after the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019 in Kuliyapititya and Minuwangoda. As in the case of the 83’ incidents, many of the attacks were carried out despite the imposition of a curfew. In many reports, people, including the military and police personnel watched on as attackers went on the rampage. Muslim women were particularly vulnerable to attacks, and many were never helped:

“The 32-year-old lawyer Inas Jinnah was approached by an unknown person on the street who told her to ‘take that filthy thing off your head [referring to her hijab], throw it, and get out of this country.’ She says, a nearby security officer did nothing while the incident was happening” (Doulatramani, 2019).

This repeated inaction of law enforcement personnel too raises questions. What are the reasons that keep them from intervening in an incident of victimisation when they have the authority to do so?  Is it that somehow their role and duty aren’t clear to them? Is it that their personal biases as human beings get the better of them? Is it fear of confrontation with the aggressor? Is it that their wings are somehow clipped by power structures? Have these issues ever been raised and discussed in training schools of law enforcement?

Fear and non-intervention

Commencing around 2012, stories began to circulate in popular media about infertility medicine (wanda pethi) that was purported to be included in food, candy, or even undergarments by Muslim businesses, specifically targeting the Sinhala community supposedly to reduce their level of fertility. Completely fanciful as this may sound the story spread like wildfire through social media despite repeated assertions by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Sri Lanka that no such thing was true or even possible. Yet there was a deafening silence from the medical fraternity including the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) and the main trade union the Government Medical Officer Association (GMOA). Though these rumours were fictitious and were openly causing animosity, suspicion, and growing tension between communities, medical professionals who had the authority to speak out remained silent even when this misinformation was identifiable as a tool to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment.

It was only in 2018 after the attacks on Muslims in Ampara based on a ‘wanda pethi’ story that a few doctors came forward to say this was in fact a myth. The fear of the wrath of ultra-nationalists and the fear of being branded a traitor no doubt played a significant role in silencing the professionals whose prerogative it might have been to speak out against dangerously fabricated stories such as this. There was of course cause enough for this fear. Sinhalese who patronised Muslim shops were known to have been attacked with eggs and verbally abused for doing so by ultra-nationalist Sinhalese. Fear of violence, branding, and ostracism no doubt played a role in stifling intervention.

This is again poignantly illustrated in Nishan’s 1983 story ‘Baaldhiya’ or ‘Vaaldhiya’: Two wor(l)ds separated by a consonant:

“We lived in Wellawatta, a locality in Colombo inhabited predominantly by Tamil people. We had two Sinhala neighbours; every other home and establishment surrounding us was owned by Tamils. Because of this, what I witnessed from the safety of my “Sinhala balcony” was all the more terrifying. The thirty-foot-wide lane that was Ramakrishna Road was chock-a-blocked with threatening people wielding clubs, iron rods, and knives, of various shapes and sizes. Even before we saw them, we could see the signs: plumes of smoke rising from the Tamil homes that had been set on fire further up the road. As we heard the eerie sounds of people screaming in fear, my mother started crying uncontrollably.”

While fear paralysed some, and made others look away, it did not prevent others from sheltering their neighbours despite the threat of being attacked themselves. What had made the difference?

An interesting set of intervening variables seems to make a difference in when and why people would take a risk to help another including saving a life. The people who were helped were often (not always) people with whom there was a personal connection – friends, colleagues, neighbours, etc. Therefore, personal cross-group interactions play an important role in determining future helping behaviour. Secondly, it is also clear that the helpers had some degree of social capital that they could leverage. As in the case of the Jesuit priest. This social capital may be linked to their positions in the community, their links and connections, or professional status, or even from perceived strength.

Theorists such as Tajfel and Turner (2004) also allude to social categories and group-based identity which can determine a person’s response to someone in distress. He claims that people are more likely to help someone or become an active bystander if the person sees the victim as someone of his or her own “group” or sees commonality and a shared identity.

An inclusive identity: Nurturing active bystanders

Factors that mitigate apathy and indifference and promote altruism and helping behaviours are what sociologists may call “cross-group interaction” or having friends and engaging with people who are different from us in race, gender age, region, social status, or any other.

The more relationships, interactions, and links we have with others outside our (homogenous) circles, the easier it is to develop an identity that incorporates the other and sees them as part of one’s greater identity. Developing a more inclusive identity that supersedes a racial identity for a national one means my inclusive identity allows me to see myself as Sri Lankan rather than merely as a “Sinhala”, “Tamil”, “Muslim” or any other racial group. It is this inclusive identity which incorporates others, fosters a sense of moral responsibility towards victims of injustice, and promotes prosocial behaviour, and active citizenship.

What we see however in the current Sri Lankan context is an education system that increasingly polarises and segregates, not only at the primary and secondary level but also at the tertiary level.  More and more children in Sri Lanka grow up not ever having a single friend from another race or cultural or religious background. Segregation and fragmentation are further deepened by the language barrier. It is almost as if the sinister “divide and rule” policy has lived on beyond the demise of its masterminds.

This then is the challenge facing the education system if it is to regain/retain its role as the shaping influence of the hearts and minds of the nation. Specially designed programs that promote social integration and cohesion need to be implemented especially in educational settings. If Sri Lanka is ever to deal effectively with racism, and the culture of racially instigated violence, her children – Muslim, Tamil, and Sinhala – must first play together, learn side by side, and must be given the opportunities, tools, and activities that develop a common identity.  

Positive bystander training

In more recent times the Bystander effect theory has been challenged and further developed. While early views asserted that other bystanders acted as a deterrent to helping behaviour Levine et al. in “Rethinking the Bystander Effect” posits that other bystanders can be a positive influence in encouraging us to act in helpful ways.

“See the group as a route to successful intervention rather than a threat to the likelihood of any single individual becoming an intervener; inform bystanders of the real risks of victimisation; utilise the power of social relations between bystanders, victims, and perpetrators to enhance successful intervention” (Levine et. al., 2020).

This stance on the Bystander effect encourages and invites us to explore how society can benefit from systematic and organised bystander education/training. Just as effective first aid training and Psychological First Aid (PFA) training are offered for emergencies (WHO, 2011) four important aspects are highlighted which can empower people to respond with more confidence, and efficacy if they ever encounter someone being victimised.

The bystander has to learn to first see and notice an incident, then he/she must recognise when intervention is needed, appropriate, and possible. Next, he/she must appraise the safety aspects of getting involved, must be able to take personal responsibility to act, and must also learn a range of techniques and options with which to intervene. Bystander training in this manner highlights optional responses such as Direct action, Distraction, and Delegation. Direct action would involve assessing whether it is advisable to engage directly with the perpetrator in some way.  Distraction would involve providing the victim with an opportunity to get away by offering an engaging distraction to the perpetrator, and delegation would involve a more suitable third party or another bystander being called into action. Providing victims with information about where to get help, offering them basic psychological “first aid” in the form of assessing needs, skilled listening, appropriate linking, and helping a victim to feel calm and regain control are all part of useful bystander interventions that can be widely disseminated.

Many successful training initiatives around us today have already had a mitigating preventative and protective impact on the lives of the vulnerable around us. The Red Cross Societies training on first aid, assertive communication techniques taught to children for their protection, programs tackling the issue of harassment on buses such as ‘not on my bus,’ or ‘saddyak danna’ (make some noise) based on the principle of ‘see something: say something’ all provide evidence that teaching and training can empower both victims and also bystanders to respond effectively.


The bystander effect does not have to be a negative one which inhibits helping behaviour. With systematic training and the corporate will of key stakeholders both in the government and civil society, effective measures can be taken to inculcate an ethos and identity that incorporates others and promotes active citizenship and helping behaviour. This in turn can mitigate the colossal and incalculable social costs incurred in racially instigated violence at the national level and brutality and trauma at the individual level.

Later research on bystander effect suggests that it is possible to create awareness among the general public about the 4 key elements:

a. Noticing an event in which someone needs help/being victimised
b. Recognising a situation as needing intervention
c. Taking responsibility for acting/doing something about it (as opposed to waiting for someone else to do something)
d. Knowing strategies for intervening/having an idea of what can be done/feeling competent enough to intervene.

A call to active citizenship at all levels must be encouraged by influential actors such as educational and religious institutions, media, law enforcement personnel, and civil society groups. Each must identify and embrace their role in influencing society towards taking an active stand in the interest of someone in need or for the public good.

Dr. Ramila Usoof completed her postgraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She graduated with a doctoral degree in Psychology with a specialization in the psychology of peace and violence: a specialization within the social psychology programme.  Her research interests include context-based morality and moral judgments, social identity and memory, and post conflict recovery and reconciliation. She currently works at the Department of Psychology, University of Peradeniya as a senior lecturer.


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Doulatramani, C. (2019). Sri Lanka’s Veil Ban is Fueling Hate. Foreign Policy (online). Retrieved at

Hu, T.Y., Li, J., Jia, H. and Xie, X. (2016). Helping others, warming yourself: Altruistic behaviours increase warmth feelings in the ambient environment. Frontiers in Psychology. Vol. 7, p.1349. Available at <>
Latane, B. and Darley, J.M., (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 10, No.3, p.215.

Levine, M., Philpot, R. and Kovalenko, A.G., (2020). Rethinking the bystander effect in violence reduction training programs. Social Issues and Policy Review. Vol.14, No.1, pp.273-296.

Tajfel, H., and Turner, J.C. (2004). The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour. In Political Psychology. Pp. 276-293. Psychology Press.

World Health Organisation (WHO) (2011). Psychological First Aid: Guide for Field Workers (online). Available at <>