Program Turns Passive Bystanders into Active Interveners

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:

October 26, 2010 — Have you ever been concerned about a situation and wanted to help, but didn't know what to do, and ended up doing nothing?

That's known in psychological circles as "the bystander effect." Passive bystanders live with regret, guilt or denial after witnessing events that can end in tragedy – without even understanding why or how things got out of hand, according to information from "Step-Up and Make a Difference," a resource that teaches people when and how to intervene if they witness a problem.

The "Step-Up and Make a Difference" program is coming to the University of Virginia's Newcomb Hall Theater on Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. as the annual Susan Grossman Memorial Lecture. Guest speakers Becky Bell and Scott Goldman will explain the bystander effect and how to overcome it. The two use interactive technology, videos and discussions to teach why bystander behavior happens and what steps a person can take to help someone in need.

Bell, an associate director of the University of Arizona athletics department, founded Step Up after looking for training for student-athletes. Goldman is a sports psychologist at Arizona.

Susan Bruce, director of U.Va.'s Gordie Center for Alcohol and Substance Education uses the Step Up resources in her job.

"We all think, 'I'm a nice person – if I saw someone in trouble, I would do something,' " she said. "And yet the research shows that four out of five times, especially if there's a group, we actually don't intervene. We assume someone else has greater expertise or they're a closer friend with that person, or there's the sense of the more people there are in the room, the less our own personal responsibility, or we look around and no one else is acting.

"There's this spiral of silence. If one person won't act, it actually means that most people won't act."

Step Up offers a five-step process to move people from being passive bystanders to active community members. It helps people tap into their motivation to help, so that their behavior is more likely to match their values, she said. The training includes developing skills for responding to problems or concerns while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of oneself and others.

Bystander intervention can be applied to a range of situations, including instances of alcohol or substance abuse, hazing, dating violence, sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, depression, disordered eating, gambling or anger management.

"It's really a pro-social program," Bruce said, "and by that we mean you're doing something that may not benefit you at all. It's purely to benefit another person."

Several U.Va. groups have already received the training, she said, including staff in the provost's office, some athletic teams, fraternities and sororities, and members of the "Let's Get Grounded" coalition. Bruce said the center began offering the program to student-athletes four years ago.

Bell created the program in partnership with the National Collegiate Athletic Association Education Services and leading national experts from the University of California-Riverside and U.Va., including Bruce. It was released nationally in 2008 and more than 65 colleges, universities and organizations have used the program.

The annual Susan Grossman Memorial Lecture is held in memory of Dr. Susan Grossman, an assistant professor of psychiatric medicine at U.Va. and the founding director of prevention programs for what is now the Gordie CASE. Along with the center, co-sponsors include the Women's Center, the Office of the Dean of Students and the Department of Athletics.

— By Anne Bromley