The Bystander Effect



I want you to imagine a scene with me for a moment:

You’re walking down the street, and you see someone on the sidewalk who looks pretty beat up, and they probably have several broken bones. As you get closer, you look around and see that there are lots of other people walking down the street as well. You’re within a few feet of this beaten up person now, and you have to decide if you’re going to stop and help, or walk past them. Eventually, you decide to keep moving - after all, you’re not a doctor so you wouldn’t be able to help them anyway. You tell yourself that there are lots of other, more qualified people that can help that person, so they don’t need you.

What I just described to you is known as the bystander effect, and it is one of the leading mindsets that hampers the fight against human trafficking.

The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when there is a large number of people around during a crisis or emergency. What ends up happening is that no one acts or calls for help, because each person is assuming that another person will make the call. As humans, we behave like this because we are afraid of standing out and behaving differently. While the bystander effect often occurs in high-stress emergency situations, it is also very present in the fight against human trafficking. Oftentimes, we are afraid to stand out and speak up about this difficult issue, because we are afraid of how others will see us and how they’ll respond to such a provocative topic. We may have a strong desire to act and help those trapped in trafficking, but for fear of being scrutinized, judged, or being under-qualified, we fail to act and hope that someone else will. I urge you not to fall prey to this way of thinking because you are needed in this fight against injustice, and while you might feel like someone else is better suited for this fight, I assure you that you are making a difference right where you are.

The bystander effect is not only driven by feelings of not wanting to stand out or waiting for someone else to act, it is also affected by a growing attitude of indifference towards fighting against a global issue such as human trafficking. When we look at the overwhelming and seemingly out of reach goal of freedom for every person it can be easy to let feelings of indifference creep into our minds and prevent us from acting. However, apathy has no place in our world, especially when it comes to standing up against injustice. When we no longer care about what happens in the lives of those around us, we have lost sight of what we’re fighting for. If we let disinterest creep in, then we lose the fight before it even begins. Apathy is the voice inside our heads whispering that we should stop fighting, that we aren’t qualified to be talking about this, and that we should leave ending modern slavery to the professionals.


By surrendering to the posture of indifference we are disqualifying ourselves before we have even had the chance to speak up. Above all, when we surrender to those apathetic feelings, we are telling ourselves that we’re wasting our effort in a fight that we could never win; that it would be better for us to stay in our comfort zones, and leave the fighting and advocating up to those who have more experience. I want to take this moment to tell you that you are so important to this cause and that we need your voice just as much as we need the voice of trained professionals. Rather than listening to the objections of apathy, I encourage you to drown out the undertones of indifference and passivity with the empathy inside of you. Empathy is the still small voice that reminds us of the hurting people we are helping, the minds that we are changing, and the hearts that we are bringing into our fight. I urge you to listen to those compassionate feelings inside your heart. Shut out the cries and protests of apathy, because they have no place in our minds or our struggle against modern day slavery. Only love and understanding coupled with action and determination can bring us to victory.

We have a responsibility to look out for the well-being and dignity of those around us, even if we’ve never met them before. We have the responsibility to make sure that traffickers and abusers do not get away with the atrocious acts that they do. I implore you to stand tall, speak loudly and advocate boldly. You don’t have to find the fuel for your fight out of sheer willpower alone, rather find it in one little victory at a time. Do one thing a day that brings you another step farther in your advocacy journey and one step closer to choosing action over indifference. Together we can end modern-day slavery!

Small Run, Big Impact.

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About the Author

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Katherina Toews sees the world mostly from between the ears of a horse, and wouldn’t want it any other way. She believes that there is nothing that can’t be fixed by sharing tea, chocolate chip cookies, and a good black and white movie with friends. Katherina is currently the Head Wrangler at a year-round camp and retreat centre, teaching people about horses and helping them to overcome their fears.