Does the Bystander Effect exist in workforce cyberbullying?

| July 28, 2017

I recently investigated whether a well-researched psychological phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect (BE) exists in the context of workplace cyberbullying and if interpersonal relationships shape the perception and actions of bystanders. The BE suggests that the likelihood of any one bystander (onlooker) helping the victim decreases as the number of other onlookers increase.


The central reason for this behaviour is believed to be a result of people feeling less responsible to help when they know that the responsibility to help is psychologically shared among others. For instance, according to the BE if a person collapsed in front of you and no one else was present you are more likely to help because you know the outcome of the situation depends on you. However if there are many people present, you may believe that there are lots of others who can do something about the situation. Therefore you are less inclined to help because you do not feel as personally obligated.

In my research, I found that although the BE was present (i.e. helping behaviour was more likely when there were two bystanders but less likely when there were 10 bystanders), the results did not reach significance. To be precise, the BE was not obvious when the strength and quality of the relationship between victim and bystander was considered. That is, people were less inclined to help when the victim was perceived as simply a work colleague but were more inclined to help when the victim was perceived as a good work friend (regardless of the number of other bystanders).

Similarly, recent studies on bullying have shown that the motivation to help is less influenced by the presence of others but more influenced by how we categorise the person or how connected we feel towards them. In other words, when we categorise the bullied person as a friend, this type of categorisation enhances perceptions of similarity, a greater sense of closeness and an increased sense of responsibility for their safety and wellbeing (Dovidio et al., 1997). Consistent with this assumption, research on workplace bullying has shown that individuals who have a larger social network of work friends are more likely to receive greater support and defending from bullies than those with few or no work friends (Escartin el al., 2013).

Results from my study not only strengthened these findings but also extended the research into the workplace cyber-environment, where people are connected to various groups in the offline as well as the online realm. Based on the overall findings, it is perhaps feasible to suggest that to prevent face to face bullying or cyberbullying in the workplace, organisations need to encourage good work relationships so that members can feel emotionally supported by each other. Emotional support from colleagues can build positive team climates which facilitate team performance, wellbeing and overall job satisfaction (Gardner et al., 2016).

Thank you once again to all those who participated in my research.

RELATED LINKS

Cyberbullying in the workplace and bystanders

Charmein Madden
Charmein Madden is a fourth year Psychology Honours student at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. As part of her course requirements she is conducting research on cyberbullying in the workplace and the actions and behaviours of employees when they witness a colleague being cyberbullied.

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