The Bystander Effect, Affected by Compassion

Within each and every one of us lie the seeds of compassion. In times of shocking disasters, like the Boston Marathon bombings, we saw complete strangers manifest their compassion as they instantly took action to help the victims despite the unknown and the chaos. 

However with our multitasking, always-on culture, many of us are too distracted to cultivate these hidden seeds in our everyday life. As a result we might stand by and witness instances that would benefit from compassion. From crowded buses where nobody relinquishes their seat to an elderly passenger, to the extreme case of busy street where passing crowds ignore an injured or struggling pedestrian, these situations have been featured in the media and studied by psychologists since the 1960’s. Dubbed the “bystander effect,” it refers to situations in which individuals do not offer any means of assistance to a victim when other people are present. What’s worse is that as the crowd grows in size, the probability of help is further reduced.

Earlier this month, Northeastern University professor of psychology David DeSteno shared his social experiment that examined the influence of meditation on this effect. From a sample of 39 randomly selected volunteers, one half of the group was assigned to eight weeks of guided and at-home meditation practice, while the other was “placed on a waiting list.” At the end of the eight weeks, both groups were called into the lab under the premise of a “cognitive abilities test,” but participants were actually being observed the minute they walked into the waiting room. As each participant sat and waited in the only available chair, a person on crutches entered who “audibly sighed in pain as she leaned uncomfortably against the wall.” So who acted compassionately? DeStefano found the results to be striking—only 16 percent of non-meditators gave up their seat, but that number jumped to 50 percent among those who had undergone meditation instruction.

Compassion is a source of powerful, boundless, and wise energy that will move us to take action, and we can begin to cultivate it by performing even the smallest acts. What may start as avoiding crushing an ant during our practice of walking meditation can quickly develop into giving our seat to someone in need. When more of us are practicing mindfulness, our collective consciousness will shift from bystander to helper mentality. Mindfulness helps us understand that we are eternally connected and supported by others – in our family, at work, our community, our nation and our world at large. When someone in our community suffers, we also suffer.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “the essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves "inside the skin" of the other.  We "go inside" their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering.  Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering.  We must become one with the subject of our observation.  When we are in contact with another's suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, ‘to suffer with.’"

Photo by Getty Images

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Great study. And it makes perfect sense, really, that someone practicing mindfulness would simply be more aware of another person's distress and have additional resources to respond. I can see why mindfulness proponents say it has the power to change the world too :)

Yes, sometimes we are so focused on our own pressing issues that we are facing daily that it is hard to go beyond ourselves and allow our innate compassionate energy to manifest.  The practice of mindfulness wakes us up to all that is around us. --- Lilian