The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon wherein individuals are less likely to offer help to another person when a group, especially a large group, is present. This effect was first defined in 1964, after the murder of New York City woman Kitty Genovese outside of her apartment. Though there were several witnesses, no one stepped in to help her or to call the police.
And yet, despite the fact that most of us assume we would absolutely jump in to help, this effect can be seen on a regular basis in emergency situations such as the Genovese stabbing. When people are in a group, they are far more likely to follow the crowd than to risk percieved social ostracization by being the first one to act.
Many of you reading this may have seen this viral video. It features a man at some sort of music festival, dancing on his own. He looks completely ridiculous, but within a few moments, another man joins him, and they look ridiculous together. From there, a third man joins in… and within only about a minute, a huge crowd is dancing together, and no one looks ridiculous at all.
This video illustrates a very important point about our nature as human beings and our shared social psychology.
We don’t want to be the first one to act.
We don’t want to be the second one to act.
Even being the third or fourth one to act feels very uncomfortable.
It is when we see the momentum of a crowd beginning to form that we realize we want to act. It is not typically because our opininion of the act itself changed – those who wanted to dance likely already wanted to dance – but because the peer pressure of what the “acceptable” behaviour is changed.
Many will berate the general public as “sheep”, but how many of us will admit to our own sheep-like tendencies?
I like to think that I know how to be a leader. I have began a career spouting thoughts that are considered unacceptable by most people in my “real” life, and that has led to media hit pieces, loss of friendships, and even threats. Over time, it has gotten easier, because I have been able to accept that my views are anathema and that my options are to stop speaking or to stop caring what people in my life think about my speech.
Clearly, I chose the latter.
This doesn’t mean that I always know how to lead. Far from it. I find my own tendency towards sheep-like behaviour comes up on a fairly regular basis. Leadership skills, like any other skill, are made easier or more difficult depending on the situational context. Speaking live on a complex topic on Periscope to a big group of people watching? Easy. Having a live show and doing guest interviews with people I have never met? Easy. Publishing thought-crime articles about Islam, feminism, or gun rights? Easy. Emailing someone and asking for an interview, knowing they might completely reject me? Easy.
Leading a company when I feel completely lost? Tough.
Yesterday, I was faced with a situation that deeply tested my leadership skills – but even more than that, it tested my following skills. We at Halsey Media have just launched our first crowdfunding campaign to get us, our 7 sites, and our 6 affiliates to where we want to be as a true alternative to the mainstream media.
I have been working my butt off behind the scenes (Along with my business partner, our other writers and site managers, and our affiliates. This was a massive team effort, and I am so thankful for the team I have, because they are total rockstars.) to get this campaign ready for launch. I spent hours writing and rewriting large portions of the campaign overview. I organized everyone’s information and worked closely with our site design contractors. I came up with the idea to have a testimonials area on the fundraiser page and campaign site so that the potential backers could see why this mission is so important to our entire team.
Basically, I poured my heart and soul into this fundraiser, like I always try to do in every area of my work, because I love what we do.
I talked about this (okay, I cried a little) in a periscope I did, which has so far been viewed by over 3,000 people, which is just incredible.
— Stefanie MacWilliams (@StefMacWilliams) July 17, 2017
Now, time for brutal honesty: day one did not go as well as I had hoped.
I’ve been torn on whether or not to write this article. Showing any sort of weakness, or uncertainty, or doubt when talking about business is not typically done. I’m a business owner, damnit. I go to work at Starbucks in nice dresses and high heels, clicking along the tiles like a lady boss. I travel frequently to America for work. I use a day planner! I get to hold interviews and be invited to be interviewed.
I have an incredibly cool job, and I am extremely blessed.
Which is why I am absolutely, heart-poundingly, embarrassingly terrified that this fundraiser will fail.
We did get generous donations on day one. Please do not think for one second that a) I wouldn’t be thankful if the whole campaign raised 500$ or b) that I would quit this job if this whole campaign raised 500$. I know, on a logical level, that no matter what happens in the next 45 days, my team at Halsey Media is resilient, creative, and tough as nails. If one way of getting the funding we need fails, we will find another way.
For the first time since I started co-owning Halsey News, I felt an instinctive drive to stop following my team.
Allow me to explain.
I had on some level (beneath my anxious phone calls to my business partner and anxious twitter messages to friends) expected momentum, right away, on this campaign. With so many people following all of us on Twitter and sharing our campaign page, I had assumed we would see donations coming in quick succession.
With so many people wanting to fight back against the monopology of the fake news mainstream media, I had expected more action.
The biggest thing, though, was far more personal: I felt rejected by the very people who had given me so much encouragement, loyalty, love, and support.
And when we feel rejected, we seek acceptance.
Instead of feeling a need to go to my team, and throw my all into continuing to improve our campaign, I felt a drive to follow the crowd that wasn’t donating. To step back. To not want to be embarrassed by pushing a campaign that I was terrified would probably fail, anyway. To just let the 45 days play out, put in the minimum that I had to to keep up appearances, and hope we make our money back that we spent developing the campaign materials.
Well, that was one of those eye-opener moments that hit like a punch to the gut.
I realized something. Here I was, silently judging those who claimed to care about alternative media but could not find a little faith and a little bit of money to put towards it, blissfully unaware of the fact that I was being a complete hypocrite.
These people (people I care about and like, by the way, which is probably why their percieved rejection stung so bad) were not doing what I was accusing them of in my head. They were not standing idly by while I asked for help because they didn’t want to put their money where their mouth is. It wasn’t that they were rejecting me. Despite a few small issues we are working on, it wasn’t because our campaign sucked and they just didn’t want to give to it.
Most of them were probably falling prey to the bystander effect. They did not want to be the first follower.
And I was doing the exact same thing.
I thought I was being a good leader – but instead, at least in my head, I was being a terrible follower. My business partner, Halsey English, has never wavered in his faith in me. And he has never wavered in his faith that we will make this fundraiser work. Here I was, when he needed me to be the first follower, to lead in faith, feeling mentally ready to give up in one day.
To say I’m ashamed of this attitude, and embarrassed to be writing about it, is an understatement. But that is the beauty of understanding our own human tendencies towards irrational behaviour and letting fear lead our actions.
My brain can think whatever stupid thing it wants.
My actions will not be based on fear.
I believe in Halsey Media. I believe in my business partner. I believe in my team. I believe in our affiliates. I believe in my Twitter followers, my Youtube subscribers, and my readers. I believe in myself.
And I believe we can make this campaign work, take on the mainstream media, and get the funding we need to thrive as a business, so I can continue to do this job.
Whatever you guys are doing in your life based on the fear of leading, or the fear of following… think about the bystander effect.
Step out in faith. You may surprise yourself.