Bystander Intervention

From survey data1, we know that most Princeton students feel responsible to intervene when they witness a concerning situation and want someone to intervene on their behalf if their health or safety was at risk. 

Darley and Latane, the founders of bystander intervention as we understand it today, identified five stages that people may experience when taking action in a situation that captures their attention2. Each person is unique and may experience these stages in different ways. 

  1. Notice what is happening around you
  2. Identify when it's appropriate to intervene
  3. Recognize personal responsibility for intervention
  4. Know how to intervene
  5. Take action to intervene

Notice what is happening around you.

While some situations are easily noticeable, many other situations are better characterized as concerning or high-risk behaviors that are likely to escalate to dangerous situations, including:

  • offensive comments
  • atypical or withdrawn behavior
  • controlling behavior in a relationship
  • high-risk drinking (e.g., pre-gaming, taking shots, playing drinking games, blacking out, drinking alone).

Sometimes, a person’s gut instinct or intuition can be the best cue that a problem exists.

Identify when it’s appropriate to intervene.

The next step is interpreting the situation as a problem in need of intervention.

  • Is the person acting drunker than they are, or are they actually intoxicated?
  • Are people who are standing close together being consensually affectionate, or is one being intimidating or aggressive towards the other?
  • Has a friend seemed depressed for more than a week or two?

You may have to gather more information, for example by:

  • observing the situation
  • checking in verbally
  • asking someone else what they’ve seen

You may not be the person who needs to take direct action, but by identifying problems, you can help put the right solutions in place.

Recognize personal responsibility for intervention.

The question here is “do I need to act?” It can be easy to assume that others will intervene so you don’t have to, particularly, if other individuals or departments are charged with keeping the community safe (e.g. police/P-Safe, SHARE, deans, bouncers, on-duty eating club officers).

We are more likely to recognize the situation as requiring our help if:

  1. No one else is around; 
  2. We can relate to the issue on a personal level, such as if our friend/family member is in danger; 
  3. We would want help if we were in that position; and/or
  4. We understand the impact the situation could have if it continues.

2022 UMatter Survey data show that Princeton undergraduate student respondents report they agree/strongly agree to feeling responsible to intervene for someone who:

  • 81%, has had too much to drink
  • 96%, is being taken advantage of sexually 
  • 91%, is being verbally, physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner
  • 83%, is being stalked by another individual
  • 75%, is in mental or emotional distress 

Even if it seems like the situation is “not your business” or someone else should intervene, you may need to to be the one to take the first step.

Know how to intervene.

This step involves acquiring skills and developing a range of strategies that lead to effective interventions. Knowing how to intervene safely and effectively improves our ability and willingness to intervene.

Take action to intervene.

There are multiple options when it comes to intervening. Learning an array of direct and indirect approaches allows you to choose the one(s) that fits the particular situation and your comfort level. Check out the "Developing Intervention Skills" page to find out which skills work best for you.

2022 UMatter Survey data show that Princeton undergraduate respondents think they would or definitely would want someone to intervene if their health or safety was at risk:

  • 97%, if they already had too much to drink 
  • 98%, if they were being taken advantage of sexually
  • 97%, if they were being verbally, physically or sexually abused by an intimate partner
  • 97%, if they were being stalked by another individual
  • 86%, if they were experiencing emotional or mental distress

1Princeton University UMatter Survey. (2022)

2Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

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