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Understanding Bystander Apathy

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Understanding Bystander Apathy

By Ken Shapiro on Animals and Society Institute
May 2012

A study published in the journal Anthrozoos examined how children and adolescents respond when witnessing animal abuse, and why many do not intervene to help animal victims.

Study Summary

Ethnographic interviews were conducted with 25 late adolescents who witnessed animal abuse months or years earlier. Results were generally consistent with, but not identical to, findings from previous research on bystander intervention with human victims; "bystander apathy" occurs when people witness harm but don't get involved to stop it. On the one hand, the response of bystanders to animal abuse was similar to that of bystanders witnessing violence against humans. Both kinds of bystanders are very troubled by what they witness but often appear to be indifferent to the distress of victims, saying or doing little if anything to stop victims from being harmed or to prevent perpetrators from repeating their violence. On the other hand, while both types of bystanders faced the same general barriers to helping, the nature and salience of these barriers differed when comparing the two groups.

Child and adolescent bystanders of animal abuse, unlike bystanders of human violence, were heavily deterred by a definition of animal abuse as a form of play among peers that normalized violence and included bystanders as participants, the fear of being labeled a tattletale or spoilsport if bystanders reported the abuse to others or caused it to stop, and individual attitudes and beliefs that led bystanders to excuse or justify the abuse or to feel as though they had no support for protesting, reporting, or preventing it.

Policy Implications

The literature in social psychology on bystander apathy adds to the growing literature on our understanding of witnessing animal abuse. Given the subordinate status of animals in our society, the barriers that justify or excuse bystander apathy in the case of animal victimization are considerable. Much animal abuse by adolescents is generated by thrill-seeking, the attraction of the illicit, and relief from boredom. Witnesses become passive bystanders in response to peer pressure. In addition to instruction about the needs of animals and the development of empathy skills, education and counseling should identify the pitfalls of bystander apathy (vicarious trauma, guilt) and provide skills that foster bystander intervention.