Crowd psychology and impact marketing

By Anja

Imagine you’re standing in a train carriage on your daily commute. You see a man harassing a woman, who was sitting by herself just seconds ago. You hope she’s okay. She looks really uncomfortable. Do you need to step in? Does she know this man? Maybe you’re misreading the situation… You tell yourself it’s none of your business. It’s not your responsibility. You’re in a crowd of people and nobody else has said anything either.

Enter, the bystander effect

The bystander effect is a branch of crowd psychology, which has broader origins in social psychology. Crowd psychology is commonly known as mob mentality, which most of us have heard of, and it’s attributed to behaviour like rioting and looting (the type we see on television after huge international sports games). This doesn’t only focus on the individual, but on how an individual is shaped by their immediate social surroundings – particularly when in a larger group of individuals. The thinking patterns and actions of a crowd differ greatly from how individuals would act on their own, and crowd psychology, as a field of study, was developed as a way of explaining why this happens. Where mob mentality often leads to crowd violence, the bystander effect leads to complete crowd passivity.

The bystander effect at its worst

(Trigger warning: sexual assault)

An example of the bystander effect that has really stuck with me is quite well-known. In 2021, a woman was physically assaulted on a New York City train in full view of nearby passengers. Police commented that “collectively, they could have gotten together and done something.”

So why didn’t they? According to psychologist Dr Bibb Latané, when people are in public they are less likely to show concern about something than if they were alone. When people see that others aren’t reacting or doing anything, they may think there’s no reason to do anything, and doubt their own reading of the situation, or believe it doesn’t concern them.

Avoiding the bystander effect

We humans have a natural tendency towards altruism, which fuels our desire to help when we feel that we have the chance. But in a crowd, given that our psychology can change, we need to be able to identify the following:

  • The problem needs to be identified as a problem.
  • You need to know that there is no threat of physical harm to yourself if you intervene.
  • You can use the Bystander Intervention Resources: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, Direct.
  • One person needs to feel that they will have the support of others. This is collective responsibility –    where the bystander effect technically transforms into a positive crowd mentality and creates change.

Digital anonymity

On social media, social activism often comes in the form of impact marketing. This means that a strategic campaign has been put in place to create change. But when people decide to just keep scrolling, a sort of “digital bystander effect” takes hold, which can be attributed to the degree of anonymity we have online. Whether this is because our online lives are mostly a facade, or because it’s possible to hide one’s real name and actual identity, this lack of action often has few repercussions for the online user. There is no doubt that digital anonymity provides the space for social media users to act as they please – or refuse to act entirely.

The bystander effect and impact marketing

Digital reports show that impact marketing has become so effective because people want to support brands that stand for something. But if the bystander effect is relevant in the digital world as well, how do we avoid it when trying to create positive change?
The goal here for social media marketers, copywriters, online activists and the like, is to make people feel that they are collectively making a difference, or the specific campaign will fall flat.

Advocacy campaigns like #blacklivesmatter pushed for collective responsibility, and it was hard to ignore because of the videos we were seeing of police violence. This, along with massive support on the ground, pushed the growth of the online movement, and people felt the need to participate – people felt collective responsibility. Impact marketing needs to foster this collective responsibility, and users need to feel that others in their community are going to do the same.

How can we do this?

In our world of digital and social media, this means users must be able to connect emotionally to a campaign: storytelling must be authentic, genuine, and provide a clear channel for people to actively create change (Mulesa also wrote about some great tips when using social media for human rights advocacy). Besides collective responsibility, users should feel that simply being a bystander is not an appealing choice.

There’s a reason why the story of the woman on the train sticks with you. I try to keep her in mind when choosing whether or not to act.

Photo by Zenza Flarini