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How to Think about Bystander Intervention Training

by Aaron Boe

Bystander Intervention Training has become a popular type of training on college campuses for the purpose of preventing sexual assault.

It has been in place for some time at the middle and high school levels to prevent bullying and is becoming a recommended type of training in the corporate workplace and in the U.S. military.

In 2001, I developed a bystander intervention workshop tailored for middle schools to help reduce cruelty to classmates and improve school culture. I had studied bystander intervention as a strategy to prevent bullying and meanness, but the important thing in my mind was to be realistic. How could a twelve year old or a thirteen year old find what would be realistic for them to say or do? That was the goal.

(By the way, do you remember the social dynamics of middle school? High school? College or the military? Your first job? The complexity of social situations is extreme! None of this should be treated as if it’s simple.)

I enjoyed providing the workshop. It felt relevant. It was relevant. Young people need help to think through what is and is not a big deal in the behavior of those around them. And when their gut tells them something is not cool, they need an option that would be realistic for them if they are to do or say anything.

Over a decade later I found myself developing a workshop tailored for fraternity men on bystander intervention. I was developing a workshop for Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc. that could be delivered either by me or by their national headquarters staff and would reach thousands of men at over 100 campuses throughout the country.

I was excited about the opportunity and it’s been a great partnership. It’s been very popular with their collegiate fraternity men and their staff. In fact, they’ve won multiple awards from the workshops I developed and they have successfully deployed.

But the truth is, I never got excited about “Bystander Intervention.” I still don’t.

Let me explain. I get really excited about one person helping another. I can even get emotional about that. But there’s something about the way bystander intervention is often talked about that I believe can limit its effectiveness.

It is often talked about as if the idea alone is the accomplishment. It’s not. The idea of getting people to help others is not worth anything if the workshop does not get people to help others. And the workshop will not get people to help others if we do not respect the complexity of what we’re trying to do.

I fear the topic is ripe for an overly simplistic view of it. We are talking about nothing less than the complexity of human decision-making and behavior WHILE IN complex social situations that create pressures, pulls, internal conflict and confusion.

There is a risk of a false sense of accomplishment that can come from getting people in a room, talking about bad issues, and then getting them to say, Yes! I would intervene!

Getting them to say they would intervene should not be the goal.

I believe it matters a lot how we think about bystander intervention. So here are some thoughts on the matter.


Bystander intervention is approximately 4.5 million years old.

The early bipedal hominid parents likely gestured to their children as they headed out of the cave to play, "Look out for your brother when you're out there." 1.5 million years ago they probably said the same thing with a bit more sophisticated language, "Keep yourselves alive, you two. And look out for each other." People looking out for other people is not a new idea. In fact, it might be dangerous to see it as a new, creative way to "stop bad things" because if we think the idea alone is creative then everything that uses the term "bystander intervention" can sound like it's doing a lot. Nothing is doing anything if it does not influence behavior.


Inspiration is not the way to increase interventions.

An intuitive approach to bystander intervention training is to try to inspire people to speak up, stand up, say something, do something, be a hero, confront the bad guy, be on the good person side, be against bad things like assault, violence, and all those things. That's the intuitive approach, but as with a lot of things that involve the complexity of human beings, what seems like it should work just doesn't. Inspiration might work for people during the training. It might even work for a few days if you ask them shortly after the training, "Hey, would you intervene if something really bad was going to happen to someone?" "Absolutely. That's the kind of person I am." We all think of ourselves that way. But the energy of inspiration from a training cannot last for eleven weeks or three years. It usually doesn't last the rest of the night. When people feel inspired during and after a workshop that's fine. Great. But inspiration is not our goal. A sustainable influence on behavior across a broad spectrum of needs is our goal, and that takes something deeper than the energetic eyes of people who can go along with the idea of being the good person in a hypothetical scenario.


The "Shoulding" and "Good Advice" approach is not how to increase bystander intervention.

It's tricky to avoid the temptation to tell people what they should do. But it helps to avoid that temptation if you realize it's not effective. Remembering advice and encouragement to "intervene" and "speak up" may not be in their minds the next semester at 2:37 a.m. on a Friday when it's not their party, they're drunk, and they're a shy person and these are loud older people who are intimidating. We can't "good advice" people into elevating how they would help others in confusing and complicated situations because it sounds good in a training to say what they should do. It takes a deeper shift than that. We've all been hearing and not applying good advice since middle school.


Stop saying "Bystander Intervention" so much.

A seven syllable term that is soon to become jargon is not the way to make something normal and mainstream. Also, it sounds kind of complicated. And it is complicated if we don't help people by making it easier. Complicated is a problem because it means they won't do anything. People don't do things that are complicated, often even when they're getting paid for it.


People need help in all kinds of ways.

"Intervening to Stop Sexual Assault" sounds good on a bullet point list of outcomes for someone selecting a program for their students. It might sound good for an article promoting what a campus is doing. But there are a lot of ways people need help from others. And a lot of people help a lot of other people in ways that are very simple and easy. But not if they don't recognize why they should.


We have to equip people to recognize this broader spectrum of ways others may need help.

People naturally intervene. People already are helping others, just not enough. Even immature people who lack basic decency are sometimes willing to help someone in need. If someone is walking on a ledge, there may be one other person laughing about it and cheering them on, but most people would have their gut override everything and words would spew out of their mouths for that person to get down before they fall. For another example, when someone keeps falling down drunk and can't talk, even immature fools won't let that person drive. The problem is there are a lot of people who can use help who are not walking on ledges or almost passed out drunk and unable to speak. We must equip people for the broader spectrum of real world scenarios, because there are a LOT of realistic scenarios that may appear less extreme but the potential for harm is not less than if they were walking on a ledge.


Making it easier to do something realistic is critical if we want to increase helpful actions.

Inspiring people to confront someone might sound like a good idea, but who is good at confronting peers in the real-world? What percentage of people are good at confrontation, especially if they don't know the other person? How often does a confrontation go well? We guys have a lifetime of socialization to NOT intervene in another guy's situation. We are not only socialized to not go against other guys, we also need friendships and relationships for "social survival." If you're going to confront another guy in a way that could appear adversarial, that is a tricky move. If it involves anything that is perceived as getting in between him and a person he is either with as a partner or pursuing, that is no small step. Just as girls and women have to go through life with some level of fear of men, we boys and men have to go through life with a level of fear of other men. I'm not saying it's the same thing. But a lot of men will not get physically aggressive with a female who would be glad to get violent with any guy who would appear to get into his business. Yes, a lot of training does not promote physical confrontation or an adversarial approach, but the language often used to attempt to inspire action to confront and intervene paints the picture of direct confrontation. We boys and men are hyper-sensitive to anything that can be perceived as being adversarial. It's socialization, but it's also primal. For virtually all of human history, we humans had to have a finely tuned senses to detect anyone who might be against us. The problem is not so much that guys are going to end up getting in a lot of fights; the problem is they're not going to do anything. Because if there is not an extreme and obvious direct physical threat to a female or a guy we're really close to, (which is something almost all men are attuned to do something about without any training at all) no guy is going to do something that risks social rejection, looking like an idiot, or getting his face messed up. Even a lot of smaller guys are mean and tough. We grow up knowing that fact too. You can't go against instincts, socialization, and basic fear all wrapped together at once. And we haven't even talked about the difficulty of going against a whole group of friends or going against a high status person. There is also just the basic challenge of knowing how to talk with a friend you're concerned about because of their choices that are not good for them. Simplistic advice will either not be attempted or, perhaps worse, it will be attempted and will backfire. To significantly increase the number of people who will do helpful things, we must never rely on something that sounds good in a training room but is not realistic in real world social complexity. The error people fall into is declaring what boys and men (and girls and women) "should" be like and what would be "right" to do, neglecting to respect the complexity of the situation.. Yes, we should absolutely want young men and everyone to do something helpful when another person is in need, but we must equip them with options that can realistically work for them.

If you wish to provide bystander intervention training, contact us to discuss ways to optimize what you provide for your people.

Our Social Strengths training is an innovative, discussions-based approach to preventing sexual assault, harassment and other unethical behavior and to increase positive culture.

Our award-winning Bystander Strengths workshop has been proven to connect and to shift key attitudes related to intervening in real-world scenarios.

There is a lot of untapped potential sitting within your people to help others and prevent serious problems. Moreover, people enjoy being equipped to better know how to handle the realistic scenarios they find themselves in.

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