Athletics Magazine

Bystander Apathy

By Brisdon @shutuprun

There is something that has been weighing heavily on my head since going to the gym this morning. And, it has nothing to do with running. Yes, running is important, but sometimes it gets trumped by more importanter stuff (like grammar).

You might remember last week that I sat with a woman at the gym who we thought was having a heart attack. (Turns out they thought it was a stroke, but after being hospitalized found out it was a complex migraine that caused her to be dizzy, to lose movement in her arm, and to be nauseated).

When I was asking about her today, the woman at the front desk who had called 911 that day told me that I was the only person who had stopped to help. She said countless people saw what was going on, and scurried out the door.

I am  not writing this to say I am some kind of hero. I did what I think and hope any of you would have done (and it really wasn’t much. I just comforted her until the paramedics came and then went to her house to get her husband). I am writing this to ask – WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?

Have we become so self-involved, so afraid of connection, so scared of liability or so hurried that we can’t stop to help a human being who is clearly in need?  I can understand if one’s personal safety is at risk, but often times that is not the case.

At the end of the day, we are all just people. We are all connected by our humanness. Whether we are sub-2 hour marathoners, doctors, mothers, Oprah or the president of the Untied States, we all feel fear, pain, loneliness, joy – we feel these things on the most basic of human levels regardless of our circumstances. It should be our instinct to help others. It should not feel like an effort or something we do to get kudos and to be recognized. And, we should keep in mind, that someday we will need help ourselves. Let’s just hope those around us can accommodate.

Bystander Apathy

One of my favorite quotes is “Our character is what we are when no one is watching.” (H. Jackson Brown). That kind of keeps me in check (especially when my dog poops and I don’t have a bag and am thinking of just leaving it).

Prior to this incident with the lady at the gym, I had read an article related to this epidemic of “Bystander Apathy (BA).” I am fascinated by the psychology behind BA, which has become quite an epidemic (watch this video to see it in action). Much research has been done on this and it’s been concluded that people are less likely to intervene for two reasons (assuming personal safety is not a concern).

1. We are less likely to help if there are many people witnessing what is going on (we figure someone else will step in) – yet, the more that people don’t’ step in, the more people seem to think the situation is non-emergent and don’t help anyway.

2. We are less likely to help those we see as different from us (race, socio economics, etc).

My deeper interpretation of why we stand by is that we are all scared to death. Scared of the unknown. Scared that becoming involved will demand too much of us. Scared that we won’t be able to handle it and will curl up into a ball of blubbering tears.

But, mostly I think we are terrified of failure. After all, if we choose to help someone and are unsuccessful (they die) or we don’t know what to do (we might look foolish!), then we have failed and we have to cope with the reality of that. Once again fear holds us back from becoming better.

Don’t let fear paralyze you. Life is so much better when we let it in and act anyway.


Have you ever reached out to help a stranger in need? Why or why not? No, except for dogs.


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