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.