Applied Psychology OPUS

The Political Bystander Effect: Evidence for Further Investigation

by Kirk DeSoto

A nation’s political atmosphere, that is, a nation’s form of government (e.g., democracy, republic, socialist state) and its overall political, educational, and economic structure may at times induce a political crisis. Such times of crisis may be evidenced in threats of war from other nations or the risk of an oppressive governmental system from within the nation itself, endangering citizens’ liberties and civil rights (Owens, 2009). For example, the rise of the Third Reich during Nazi Germany (1919-1945) and the atrocities perpetrated under the rule of Mao Zedong (1958-1962) are two well-known historical examples of nations experiencing political crises. The political systems present in these examples transferred power to the State and away from the people, thus ensuring the rights of government over the rights of the people. In China alone, approximately 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death over a four-year period (Akbar, 2010). Similarly, a reported 6 million Jews were killed during World War II (Marrs, 2008). Both tragedies were preceded by a large-scale loss of individual rights and liberties implemented by a governing body (Akbar, 2010; Marrs, 2008). These contentious political atmospheres prevented citizens from having a political voice and limited their civic engagement (Akbar, 2010; Marrs, 2008).

Similarly, when Western political atmospheres - such as the United States and the United Kingdom - have been in crisis, a collective avoidance of political responsibility and engagement has been common (McHugh, 2006). For example, the formation of the European Union (EU) has been a site of political crisis for British citizens. Under the EU, citizens are unable to vote out treaties and bureaucracies, leading to political indifference and disengagement (Ocana, 2003). Such formation of governmental systems that do not recognize the rights of their citizens is one example of a political crisis which may render citizens to feel hopeless and limit their participation in political activities (i.e. voting or even simply knowing their civil rights). This inaction may be due to a variety of factors, such as individual apathy, political frustration, or perceiving other citizens’ indifference to the political atmosphere (Altbach, 1997; McHugh, 2006).

There is a paucity of research examining the relation between political disengagement and the perceived indifference of others in a crisis situation. However, the idea that many individuals fail to act in changing their political atmosphere due to their perception of indifference in others is particularly important to consider. Due to the influence that personal political decisions can have on nations and entire societies, it is important to determine what factors lead to personal disengagement from civic responsibility and how these factors may be reduced in order to ensure that individual and national rights and freedoms are upheld.

The idea that personal disengagement may result from observing political indifference in others is grounded in research on the bystander effect (Darley and Latane, 1968), which posits that a significant number of individuals will display a diffusion of responsibility in emergency situations when there are other individuals present. Darley and Latane (1968) suggested that diffusion of responsibility derives not simply from apathetic or alienating dispositions, but from the bystander’s response to other observers’ indifference to an emergency situation. Similarly, political disengagement, that is, lack of participation in political or civic responsibilities, when due to perceived indifference in others may also be seen as diffusion of responsibility. In fact, the emergency situation experienced at the individual level is similar to the experience of a political atmosphere in crisis at the national level. Therefore, a diffusion of political responsibility will generally include abstention from activities such as voting, becoming politically active in one’s community, and becoming educated on civil rights, political systems, and government functionality (Putnam, 2001).

An individual or group’s diffusion of responsibility may manifest itself differently based on the nature of the situation. Individuals may diffuse responsibility in a more intimate or emergency situation that requires direct action and typically yields immediate, tangible results or repercussions. An example of responding to an intimate situation may be the protest of a corrupt politician outside his office (Zomeren & Spears, 2009), or meeting with a politician in person to discuss community issues and determine their political agenda (Putnam, 2001). Individuals may also diffuse responsibility in a less tangible emergency, or non-intimate, situation which may result in yielding less tangible future results or repercussions. In a political context, a non-intimate situation could include sending a donation to a charity (Garcia, Weaver, Darley, & Spence, 2009) or strongly supporting or opposing potentially intrusive legislation (Sang, 2004). Individuals may diffuse responsibility in a given situation because they may base their response on others’ indifference (Darley & Latane, 1968) or they may feel as though even if they chose to act it wouldn’t change anything anyway (Bannon, 2005).

This article encourages further study by (1.) examining the literature of factors that contribute to an individual’s choice to be politically or civically disengaged, (2.) exploring the relationship between a diffusion of responsibility as a reaction to others’ indifference and political dis-engagement, and (3.) suggesting a framework for further research on the presence of a ‚political bystander effect.

Political Disengagement

The United States has undergone a decline in political engagement over the last 60 years (Putnam, 2001). Much of the research conducted to determine the attitudes associated with a decline in political engagement has been done with emerging adults (Putnam, 2001). Although the political attitudes of emerging adults do not always reflect the same attitudes as other age groups, emerging adults do comprise nearly 50 percent of active U.S. voters (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009). Research shows that much of the decline in political engagement in the United States is due to factors stated earlier, such as apathy or a collective indifference (Altbach, 1997; McHugh, 2006). Determining the factors associated with these collective patterns of political disengagement is important in understanding how these factors can relate to a collective indifference.

Political Identity and Political Disengagement in the United States

Despite America’s seemingly civic proactive history, some scholars have shown that Americans are rapidly becoming a loose aggregation of dis-engaged observers, rather than a strong collectively active group of participants (Putnam, 2001). In fact, this was evident in the U.S. as early as the 1960 presidential election. Despite the overall number of voters increasing from 1960 to 2008, the voting age population turnout percentage declined by 6.3% over that time frame (Putnam, 2001). A study conducted in the United States by Smith and Denton (2005) found that a majority (59%) of emerging adults said that they did not consider themselves to be political. Many of these participants were categorized as essentially apathetic; sub-categories within this group were categorized as uninformed, distrustful, or disempowered (Snell, 2010). Although this study focuses on emerging adults, similar studies have shown similar results in terms of a decline in civic activities among adults (Putnam, 2001).

In Smith and Denton’s (2005) study, participants described as ‚uninformed (13%) tended to provide short responses to questions regarding politics, identified as not interested in anything political because they simply didn’t know enough about politics to be engaged (Snell, 2010). Based on these responses, researchers concluded that civic engagement for uniformed participants may merely depend upon someone providing them with necessary information, suggesting that these participants’ civic engagement is contingent upon someone else taking initiative for them. Additionally, many uninformed participants described their friends as uninformed, meaning that their disengagement may have been encour-aged by their peers’ indifference towards political engagement (Snell, 2010). Such findings build grounds for considering individual political disengagement as a product of the collective perception of the political system as a whole, indicating that indifference may stem from a collective diffusion of civic responsibility.

Participants described as ‚distrustful (19%) gave elaborate, informed responses to questions about politics (Snell, 2010). They acknowledged being politically disengaged due to a lack of trust in the political system or politicians (Snell, 2010). Despite their self-reported extensive knowledge about politics, they still chose to be disengaged. This choice to diffuse civic responsibility, despite their knowledge of politics, may be evidence of a response to a larger societal perception that politicians have not honored their responsibility to meet the needs of their citizens.

Participants described as ‚dis-empowered (10%), appeared to be politically knowledgeable, but specifically felt that their political activity wouldn’t make a difference (Snell, 2010). Unlike the distrustful group, they didn’t specifically express distrust towards politicians but they felt as though the political system itself could not be influenced by any action they could provide (Snell, 2010). This group reported feeling as though engaging in the collective society would be ‚fruitless and yield no tangible changes (Snell, 2010). Because this group saw themselves as disempowered collectively, this hopeless-ness has the potential to be reinforced by peers who share this belief or feel political engagement is futile for whatever reason. If reinforcement occurs, an individual may diffuse civic responsibility, suggesting that the collective perception justifies their position of indifference, thus justifying a cyclical ‚observation of perceived indifference’ and a subsequent ‘diffusion of civic action.

Factors Contributing to Political Disengagement

Many factors contribute to political disengagement, both individual and collective. Discussed previously, individual factors may include personal apathy, political frustration, or a parroting of a collective political indifference (Altbach, 1997). Additionally, some societal factors that may enhance a nation’s level of political engagement include: a nation’s overall political structure (Snell, 2010), the historical models of education within the nation (King, 2007), and the general economic state of the nation (Shen, 2009). The type of political structure can often dictate to its members the prescribed levels of political engagement (Snell, 2010). For instance, if a nation’s political structure is similar to a dictatorship, the people of that nation may be forced into political disengagement, whereas in a democracy political engagement is highly encouraged and essentially required (Snell, 2010). For this purpose it is relevant to focus on nations that are primarily democratic in nature, as many nondemocratic nations do not possess the same criteria to accurately measure levels of its citizen’s political engagement.

War has been found to have a significant influence on the political engagement of a nation’s citizens. While disengagement is usually the norm, citizens’ political engagement can be sparked by a government’s determination to go to war, such as the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq (Hibbs, 2008). War is very costly and can often create more foreign enemies than friends, especially for the aggressor nation (Congressional Budget Office, 2010). Such factors may encourage the citizens to become more politically involved in support or protest of such war, creating a larger voter turnout in the following election. Two such supporting examples are the U.S. interventions in Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq; in these cases, the American citizen aggregate collectively sought to express their displeasure for the decisions made by the political party in power, resulting in a change of political parties (Hibbs, 2008). However, in some cases these factors may also dissuade the masses from becoming involved in political affairs. In these situations, at an individual level, political disengagement is often a product of a lack of family relations and social ties (Snell, 2010). For individuals who do not affiliate with a particular political group, disengagement may be easier due to a lack of social and affiliating support, which affiliation with such a political group can offer. However, political party group affiliation alone still does not guarantee political engagement from its members (Snell, 2010).

A nation’s educational system can also play a role in an individual or group’s inclination toward political engagement. A nation’s educational system is often structurally similar to that nation’s political structure (Dee, 2004). If a nation’s sociopolitical norms are set to encourage politically engaging activities like voting, political debate, or citizen involvement, typically its citizens will base their perceived ability to be politically engaged according to the manner in which they were educated (Dee, 2004). Even some liberalism models posit that education is a producer of civic virtue (Edwards, 2009). In other words, if an individual is more educated, they may be more inclined to be civically active. However, this is not always the case. For instance, in Western nations where higher education is more prevalent and the notion of democracy is present and often promoted, only approximately half of the voting-age population turns out to vote (Information Please, 2008). This may suggest that either the education of civic engagement is not being taught or that it is not being well received. Due to the changes in the educational system since the 1960’s, virtually all of the public schools in the United States removed political education from their curriculum (Iserbyt, 1999). Thus, if emerging adults’ only catalyst for political engagement comes from television or their parents, they may be less likely to become involved due to indifference generated from these often conflicting sources (Hoffman & Thomson, 2009).

The economic state of a nation can also determine its citizens’ levels of political engagement. It is often the case that political protests heighten during times of high unemployment and economic instability (Kollewe, 2010). Negative perception of the strength of the economy can motivate individuals to take a sudden interest in presidential campaigns, search out alternative news outlets, and learn more about politics in general (Shen, 2009). In fact, a nation’s economy has been found to have a strong relationship with factors such as the presidential approval rating, presidential voting results, public opinion, and even government behavior (Shen, 2009). Changes in the economic market, monetary policy, and foreign or domestic threats to economic stability are all factors that affect how an individual may approach political engagement (Shen, 2009). In addition, the economy is also acknowledged as a major contributor of political engagement by politicians. This was evident in the 2008 U.S. election, wherein all the candidates listed the economy as a top issue on their campaign websites (Shen, 2009). However, despite the potential impact that a nation’s economy can have on a citizen’s political engagement, many of the individuals directly affected by the 2008 U.S. banking crisis have done little to become politically engaged (Bransford, 2009). Despite unemployment rates souring, many individuals, rather than getting politically active, are attempting to wait out the impending second American depression in their tent cities (Bransford, 2009). These thousands of homeless Americans could collectively politically engage to attempt to create a political change, but instead they seem to display collective indifference towards political activity.

Because all of these factors (e.g., political structure, war, educational systems, and economic systems) effect virtually all individuals within a nation, and the source of the political crises tend to stem from a collective diffusion of responsibility towards political and civic engagement, a consideration of the bystander effect may shed further light on the phenomenon of political disengagement.

The Bystander Effect

Darley and Latane’s (1968) research on the bystander effect focused on collective indifference to individual emergency situations and how that indifference may translate into a diffusion of responsibility, resulting in a lack of intervention or action on the part of the individual. While Darley and Latane (1968) discuss the weighing of risks associated with a diffusion of responsibility in an individual emergency situation, their conclusions in a larger sense focus on an individual’s response to others’ indifference. In finding that the more bystanders present in an emergency situation, the slower and less frequent the participants would report the perceived emergency or provide aid, Darley & Latane, 1968 found that an individual’s decision to act depended on the amount of available actors.

Furthermore, a supporting study found that individuals merely prompted to imagine others in a given scenario would respond with a diffusion of responsibility under certain conditions (Garcia, Weaver, Darley, & Moskowitz, 2002). Being primed to even imagine a larger amount of people in a given scenario resulted in a participant subsequently indicating a greater tendency to diffuse the responsibility to help (Garcia et al., 2002). Such evidence could suggest a collectively greater tendency towards apathy, however, participants in all studies showed a greater tendency to help when they imagined fewer actors in the given scenario. Therefore, individual apathy may not be the ultimate cause of the diffusion of responsibility. In other words, when participants feel as though they are the only source of potential help in a given scenario, they may be more driven to help (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2009).

Another important consideration in motivation to help is the potential difference in the responses of men and women. Bystander replications have been conducted to assess the role of gender, finding that women and men’s willingness to help depended on the specific, individual scenario (Latane & Nida, 1981). In other words, there were no differences as a result of gender group, though individual differences were present. This is consistent with Darley and Latane’s (1968) findings that male and female participants reported the perceived emergency in the same fashion; one sex did not report the emergency any faster than the other. In addition, other studies have shown that in the majority of cases the effect of the group’s size holds for both sexes whether or not there is a main effect for sex (Latane & Nida, 1981). In other words, while there are differences in sex and the frequency of types of helping, the group size phenomenon affects both males and females nearly equally (Latane & Nida, 1981). Such investigation suggests that there is something unique about the group size and its generation of greater amounts of responsibility diffusion for most participants, regardless of gender.

The Political Bystander Effect

Though researchers have yet to pair the concept of political disengagement with the bystander effect framework, it makes sense that a lack of civic particip-ation may be a function of the perception that there are so many potential actors (in this case, citizens) that one need not be politically engaged. Although there are several different reasons why an individual or group would diffuse any form of responsibility, based on the results of studies conducted concerning the bystander effect, it is reasonable to understand tendencies to diffuse responsibility in emergency situations in response to others’ indifference. While political disengagement and the bystander effect are clearly two different constructs; however, since they may share a similar diffusion of responsibility, further and specific research should be conducted to determine if individuals who exhibit the bystander effect are also politically disengaged. If research can show that these underlying factors are related, then perhaps a theoretical framework can be established to examine the notion of a political bystander effect.


Since political factors affect virtually every individual within any given society, this infers a general collective responsibility in maintaining a safe and protective social climate. When a majority begins to diffuse the responsibility of being civically active, it may eventually place the majority in a subsequent political crisis situation such as the 2008 U.S. banking crisis, which was politically generated (Snow, 2008). The preceding event that lead to the 2008 U.S. banking crisis was the dismantling of the Glass-Steagall Act, passed in 1933 and repealed in 1990 (Rees-Mogg, 2008). The Glass-Steagall Act prevented banks from creating and using speculative derivatives, or ledger reserves; the use of these same forms of derivatives are what caused the stock market crash of 1929 (Caldararo, 2008). In both the 1929 stock market crash and the 2008 U.S. banking crisis, many individuals felt as though someone else would fix the problem (Caldararo, 2008; Rees-Mogg, 2008;). This and other similar examples of citizen civic disengagement tend to show similar characteristics. Thus, if there is found strong correlation between factors that contribute to the bystander effect and political disengagement due to the underlying factor that leads to a diffusion of responsibility (i.e. a response to others indifference), perhaps this correlative could justify further research as to the nature of individual and collective political disengagement. In fact, further research should determine if a diffusion of civic responsibility is due more specifically to collective indifference. If the correlative factor for the lack of engagement toward civic responsibilities is generated from a diffusion of responsibility due to a collective indifference, this correlative data may very well justify further research toward determining a ‚political bystander effect.

Therefore, in order to test this notion research should first determine if there is a significant relationship between individuals who self-report as being politically disengaged and individuals who tend to

exhibit a diffusion of responsibility in emergency situations. Perhaps a replication of the bystander effect study, followed by survey methods about political and civic knowledge and involvement, would be a worthwhile method of investigation. If participants who reported low political and civic engagement also diffused their responsibility to help another individual in the controlled experiment, this may very well justify a codification of a ‚political bystander effect.


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