Community: Heroes in Everyday Life

Posted by Joel Bennett on

Community: Heroes in Everyday Life This article co-authored by OWLS staff (Brittany Linde and Gale Lucas)

 

Heroes stand up for others in their community. When a community member has an accident or gets into any other emergency situation, a hero rises to the occasion. Heroes have to overcome many factors that stand in the way of taking action in these situations. Beyond any fear to their own physical safely, there are many other psychological factors that can inhibit what psychologists term “bystander intervention.”

First, if there is a crowd, or even just a couple of other bystanders, the hero has to overcome confusion about whether it’s their responsibility to do anything. They also have to overcome the fear of looking foolish; if there really is no emergency (e.g., community member is acting a part in a performance), the hero could instead look the fool. Heroes also have to gather the confidence to believe in themselves, specifically, that they have the requisite skills to help in this situation. Finally, they may also have to overcome cultural norms, such as stoicism. Since the late 1960s, psychologists like John Darley and Bibb Latané have identified these features, and subsequently designed interventions, to address this so called Bystander Effect.

Being a Bystander of Bad Decisions

However, true heroes don’t just come when someone calls help, or even just when there seems to be an emergency. True heroes also stand up and support their peers when those peers seem to be making bad decisions.

Sometimes, we are present when other members of our communities - our peers - are about to make bad decisions. We are sometimes witness to another type of “emergency” when our peers decide to engage in acts of criminality, violence, bullying, sexual abuse and intimate partner violence. These too are points where we can provide our members of our community peer support or intervention. Broadly speaking, the goals of this new wave of peer bystander intervention programs are to encourage witnesses to voice concerns, provide help, and/or intervene when they experience others (typically a group) who tolerate or condone acts of violence, crime, or sexual misconduct. By learning how to recognize signs of distress, problem-solve within these situations or crises, take responsibility, and select safe bystander behaviors, it is possible to be able to recognize when such situations are occurring and take appropriate action to facilitate healthier decision-making in our peers. When bystanders are armed with the knowledge that they need to identify and address these situations, they become active participants in the community that surrounds them.

Three-Step Approach

Although many types of bystander prevention programs exist, successful models use three steps: (1) assess the situation, (2) view options for action, and (3) select safe bystander behaviors that participants are willing to carry out. Such research shows that awareness of the psychological factors that inhibit bystander intervention can increase actual helping behaviors in such situations. That is, the 3-step approach addresses the aforementioned factors known to inhibit bystander intervention: feeling little direct responsibility, fear of being evaluated/looking foolish, lacking confidence in skills to change the situation, or being required to challenge a cultural norm, such as stoicism.

Importantly, new research is finding that this three-step approach works to increase bystander action in more than just these emergency situations. Indeed, this approach can also be successful in helping bystanders take action when their peers seem to be on the cusp of making bad decisions. For example, our colleagues recently designed and successfully piloted a bystander intervention to use these steps to help bystanders to intervene with issues such as theft, harassment, domestic abuse, and suicide (Derefinko, Hallsell, Colvin, Isaacs, Bursac, & Klesges, under review).

By better understanding the conundrum of being a bystander, we can become more confident in dealing with challenging interpersonal situations. Next time you see someone who might need help, you can use this three-step approach to break out of the shackles of “just” being a bystander. Knowledge is power, and with this power, you could save someone’s life – whether it be helping them survive an accident or helping them make the right choice.

Are you an active participant in the community that surrounds you? Do you think you have a strong sense of community? You can find out which of the “5 Cs of resilience,” including community, is your strongest “C”.

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