Did You Know Bystander Intervention Prevents More Than Sexual Violence?

Posted by Josh Young on 2 March 2017 |

did you know bystander intervention prevents more than sexual violenceImagine that you are a college student at a kickin' (Do people still say "kickin"?) party. A nearby couple are engaged in an excessive display of public affection, but one of them seems to be overly intoxicated. In fact, one of them seems to be blackout drunk.

As you point this out to your friends, the couple -- one clearly stumbling and barely able to stand -- make their way to the stairs, presumably to find an unoccupied bedroom on the second floor.

How would you respond? Should you respond? And if you do respond, what does that even look like?

Why We Don't Always Act

One of the major reasons that bystanders routinely don't intervene in situations like the one above is a psychological phenomena known as the bystander effect. With much of our public behavior directed by social norms and the actions of those surrounding us, we are less likely to intervene in a situation if no one else is acting.

In addition, when we are in a crowd, there is a diffusion of responsibility, meaning that we feel less inclined to take direct action, placing the bulk of this responsibility on those surrounding us and only assuming a small fraction for ourselves.

Changing the Program

To counteract this bystander effect, bystander intervention programs have begun cropping up across the country to encourage students to rewire their responses to these types of situations.

Traditionally, discussions of bystander intervention have focused primarily on preventing sexual violence. However, there are many other situations bystanders might encounter where they can intervene:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Emotional abuse from an intimate partner
  • Hazing
  • Alcohol emergencies
  • Emotional Distress
  • Bias and discrimination

In fact, each of these scenarios is brought up in Intervene, a short film produced by Cornell's Gannett Health Services. During the 20 minute video, viewers see different scenarios where they can practice bystander intervention.

Bystander Education Works

To test the effectiveness of the Intervene video, Cornell surveyed both graduate and undergraduate students four weeks after they had viewed the film, comparing their responses against students who had not seen the film. Across the board, those that had watched Intervene indicated that they were more likely to intervene as a bystander if one of these situations arose.

The results of this survey reflect similar findings that found increased bystander action in situations of sexual violence and interpersonal violence after students attended bystander intervention training programs.

For this training to be effective, it needs to offer students practical strategies and techniques that can be adapted to their unique situation.


For an attitude of bystander intervention to take root on your campus, education is key. And by bringing awareness to the idea of bystander intervention for more than just sexual violence prevention, you can encourage your students to prevent and disrupt many different kinds of harmful situations from occurring.

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