Want To Be a Better Bystander? You’ll Have To Train Your Brain

It's well-documented that the COVID-19 pandemic saw increases in violence, harassment, and abuse. Hate crimes targeting Asians have increased by 339 percent last year in the U.S., according to data from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. A 2021 survey by OneFairWage found that 43 percent of female food service workers experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, particularly when reminding customers to wear masks. And 2021 a report from U.N. Women found that 40 percent of women feel less safe in public spaces than before the pandemic.

In the face of glaring statistics and violence, people are often motivated to challenge injustices. However, knowing exactly how to step in is complicated. Inserting oneself into an escalating situation isn't second nature,  but, bystander intervention—which occurs when someone who isn't the aggressor or target of harassment or violence jumps in to help—can be learned.  Research compiled for Harvard Business Review in 2020 by sociologists Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev found that training bystanders is a more promising strategy for stopping workplace sexual harassment than requiring employees to watch cheesy videos of unwelcome backrubs. When done well, bystanders can support someone who is being targeted, they can interrupt a situation before it escalates, or they change the culture of a workplace, community, or public area.

As the executive director of a violence prevention program, I've seen requests for bystander training more than double in the past year. Seeing so many motivated helpers is one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic. But I also know that it takes courage and skill, not just compassion, to make a potentially volatile situation safer.

It's not you; it's your brain

Amy Arnsten, PhD, professor of neuroscience at Yale University Medical School, explains that in stressful situations, like witnessing street harassment, our brains release the chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. When this happens, our prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs thought and planning—can't function. "Especially if it's stress where you feel out of control," Dr. Arnsten says.

When this happens, we default to our habits. We "flip from being reflective and thoughtful to being reactive, instinctive, and habitual," Dr. Arnsten says. Quick, instinctive responses can save our lives in more straightforward emergencies, like automatically slamming the brakes when someone cuts us off in traffic. But when the situation is more complicated, our habits don't always help. "When you are confronting a threat that requires thoughtfulness," Dr. Arnsten explains. "You need your prefrontal cortex to survive."

If you want to be the kind of person who has the presence of mind to help someone getting unwanted attention harassed in a bar, you make speaking up or stepping in a habit. "Programs that incorporate active practice in skills that people can use to intervene are the most effective," says Lindsay Orchowski, PhD, of Brown University, a sexual violence prevention expert.

"The whole point is to teach people helpful habits," Dr. Arnsten says. "So when your prefrontal cortex goes offline, and your habit circuits are in control, [you] do the right thing without your having to think about it."

There is more than one way to intervene

Every brave act comes with risk. We may love the idea of coming to the aid of a stranger who is being threatened, but we need to be honest about whether we have the skills to keep ourselves safe. "People who have the skills to protect themselves are often more confident in their ability to use those same skills to advocate for others and are more likely to act effectively under stress," says Karen Chasen, vice president of Prepare, an organization that teaches both self-defense and bystander intervention.

If being direct is not for you, there are other options. "Bystander intervention isn't one size fits all," says Jane Stapleton of the Prevention Innovations Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Maybe instead of telling a harasser to stop, you cause a distraction by spilling your drink or asking for directions. Set yourself up for success by choosing a strategy that fits your strengths.

 A direct approach

The advantage of a direct conversation is that the problem gets addressed explicitly, whether a friend dismisses their partner's sexual boundaries or a client who wants to do business at a strip club. When taking this approach, address the person calmly and focus on the specific behavior and why it's a problem. When I work with teachers and school administrators, we practice direct conversations with coworkers whose interactions with students are not appropriate: "I saw you alone in your classroom with one student, and it looked like you were touching her shoulder. It concerned me because teachers are not supposed to touch students in that way. What was going on?"

Another strategy for direct conversation is to come from a place of caring and concern, says Sevonna Brown, co-executive director of Black Women's Blueprint. In their Bystander Intervention Mixtape curriculum, they present a model for talking to a friend: "I've got to tell you that getting a girl drunk to have sex with her is not the move and could get you in a lot of trouble. Don't do it." 

An indirect approach

Being direct is not for everyone. Stapleton finds that most college students are more comfortable–and more creative–with indirect approaches. Some of her students were in a bar when they noticed a man trying to force alcohol on his date. They formed a conga line and got her onto the dance floor and away from him.

Know that all approaches take practice

When I teach bystander intervention, I work with a co-instructor who plays the role of the person whose behavior is crossing lines. He gets defensive, condescending, or physically intimidating. This gives people a taste of their physiological stress response – their hearts race, or their minds go blank. As they practice direct conversations or indirect interventions, I coach them. I remind them to breathe or prompt them if they're at a loss for words. This is always the most challenging part of the training, but also the most important. Practice helps us change our habits, which sets our brains up for success.


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