Bystander Intervention Theory

This research project was made public recently.

You can see it on the PDF on this site (and then go to the bottom of the PDF and read more).

I analyzed this for my coworkers this week and decided to share it with others.

I appreciate this work because it integrates several of the leading articles in our field right now and I think this breaks down the whole notion of “Bystander Intervention Theory” better than anywhere else I have seen it.

BUT since it’s 66 pages, I’ll pull out some of the best parts I appreciated from this work, commissioned by Public Health England.


I. Purpose of this Document:

Specific to Universities and Campus Bystander Training.

“Tackling sexual and domestic violence requires an appreciation that they are forms of behavior which are rooted in gender relations and the social policing of gender roles in our society (Hester and Lilley, 2014).


II. What constitutes criminal offenses of violence against women (See Powell 2011 and Schwartz 2001), page 14:

1. A vulnerable victim or target

2. A motivated offender

3. The absence of capable guardianship (or bystander who intervenes)


III. Bystander Theory:

1. Two important pieces in this if violence will be prevented. First, by increasing risks of being reported/charged AND second, by taking into account the social normative risks and rewards for violent behaviors (Powell, 2011).


2. Definition: A bystander is: “someone who witnesses an event but is not directly involved in the event itself” (14).

  • a. A prosocial bystander is one who intervenes “when they witness a problematic event between a perpetrator and victim” (14).
  • b. A passive bystander is one who does nothing.


3. There are four stages bystanders go through to move into action (Adapted from Berkowitz 2009)- Page 15:

  • a. Notice the event
  • b. Interpret it as a problem

· “In order to notice an event and identify it as a problem, it is necessary to have sufficient knowledge” (15).

· The bystander must notice: Risk factors, negative impacts on victims, behaviors of sexual violence, know the early warning signs of abuse, and recognize potentially dangerous situations (15).

· Knowledge is important—but not everything

  • c. Feel responsible for dealing with it

· Do this by: “increasing participants’ empathy for victims” and/or by helping people address “their own attitudes towards violence against women” (McMahon, 2011), page 16.

  • d. Possess the necessary skills to act

· This helps the person be confident “they can interrupt, speak out, and help” (16).

· They must know the difference between “time-critical intervention ‘in the moment’” and “intervention involving primary, secondary or teriary prevention” (Powell, 2014), page 16.


4. Barriers to Intervention

Types of factors that prevent bystanders from intervening:

  • a. Social influence (there cannot be a problem because no one else is intervening)
  • b. Audience inhibition (fear of embarrassing self in front of others)
  • c. Diffusion of responsibility (assumption others will intervene)
  • d. Fear of retaliation (perceived negative consequences to the bystander)
  • e. Pluralistic Ignorance (don’t understand others desire to intervene and believe their desire to intervene must be wrong)

(Adapted from Berkowitz, 2009), page 17.


IV. Principles for Effective Change (according to Nation et al 2003):

Three Categories (pages 25-28):

1. The characteristics of effective programs (for example:)

  • a. Is the proposed course of action comprehensive? Will it work across multiple settings? (page 26)
  • b. Are a variety of teaching methods being used?
  • c. Are participants exposed to enough intervention techniques?
  • d. Is the program grounded in positivity?
  • e. Is this work based in research and empirically tested theories?


2. The principles related to matching programs with a target population

  • a. Are you speaking to participants at the right time?
  • b. Is the target population helping to design?


3. The principles related to implementation and evaluation

  • a. Are staff well-trained, supported, and supervised?
  • b. Is there an outcome based evaluation?


V. Other

1. Knowledge about the law is not enough to change behavior. Discussions about the law must be framed positively so that it can be a springboard for discussing issues in society at large (pages 21-22).

2. Violence must be framed as an issue for everyone (page 24), not just a men’s perpetration issue.

3. Men should be positioned and conceptualized as the positive, prosocial bystander (page 24).

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