Using Bystander Intervention to tackle problematic behaviours.

Dr Gill Harrop is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Worcester and has researched extensively in the effectiveness of ‘bystander intervention’, essentially, looking at what we can do to tackle problematic behaviours.

She’s been undertaking research and education in how to best address problematic behaviours in all areas, from the private chat groups of friends to boardrooms, and from canteens to train station platforms.

Gill has been leading a programme of education for staff and students at the University of Worcester and is sharing some of the key messages so others can think about their own behaviours, and how they react to the behaviours of others.

“There are different parts to challenging problematic behaviours,” she says. “If we’re going to do something about it, we need to notice it. If we’ve noticed it, we can do something about it but there are barriers.

“Say, you’re a first-year student in a new mobile chat group, you’ve met your friends a few weeks ago and you’re like ‘thank goodness! I wasn’t sure I’d make friends!’ but then one of them shares a misogynistic meme.”

“Now the question is ‘Am I going to be the one to call it out? Maybe they’ll think I don’t have a sense of humour; I’ll be risking that friendship group’”.

“So, if I don’t want to respond within the group and reply ‘That’s not ok!’, maybe I could mute the group, or ask my friend in person ‘did you see that comment? What did you think’? So, you can still do something”.

Sometimes though, the barrier is that we don’t know what to do in the moment,” Gill adds. “There was a woman who was sexually assaulted on a train, there was a video of all the people seeing it happened who had certainly noticed. They must have thought it wasn’t ok but they didn’t do anything. They were probably thinking ‘this is awful, I hope someone helps her, I wonder who will help her, someone must have called the police’.

“There’s an assumption that someone else will intervene, and there’s a sense of relief when we see it doesn’t have to be us because that can be scary and dangerous, it takes one person to act and that can be difficult”.

So what should I do? What can I do?!


A lego superhero figure
You don't have to be a superhero to make a difference

“It’s about knowing what your intervention might look like,” says Gill. “There’s a feeling that to intervene you must put on your red cape and run in and shout ‘STOP! You’re a PREDATOR!’ and that’s just not realistic.

“Just the phrasing of saying to someone ‘are you ok?’ Or in the case of the mobile group chat saying ‘I don’t really feel able to have a conversation right now but I’m not really ok with that’”

“If you can notice something, recognise there’s a problem and you’re the one who says ‘I’m going to act’, even if nobody else is, I’m going to be the first’ and then having the skills to know what to do, if you’ve got those things in place you’ll generally get people being active bystanders”.

Don’t wait for a red flag.

A friend shouting something across the street at a member of the opposite sex, or a colleague or superior making an overtly sexualised comment. These are examples of clear red flags, and alarm bells should be ringing in your mind about these behaviours and the people exhibiting them.

But what if it’s not as serious as that? Something which isn’t quite enough for you to feel like action is needed in the here and now? These can be examples of ‘amber flags’, and they’re just as important to watch out for.

“We know about red flags, when someone says something clearly unacceptable,” Gill says. “But sometimes we might see a behaviour and think ‘I don’t want to put a label on this person, I don’t think they’d go and attack someone, it was just a joke, I’ll only call them out if it gets really bad’.

“But it’s about recognising the link between the things we don’t have a problem with, and the things we do”.

“There’s a fear as being seen as the one with no sense of humour. ‘Oh here she goes again, the ranty feminist’, but actually, if we’re being active bystanders, we’re bystanders for everyone. If a behaviour is unacceptable, it’s unacceptable regardless of who’s doing it”.

“If someone is making problematic sexist comments and it looks like everyone’s laughing, nobody’s challenging them, the person making the comment thinks ‘everyone likes this! I’ll do more of this! Maybe on the next night out I won’t say it in the group chat, I’ll say it out loud, or I’ll shout it at someone across the street’. So at what point do you step in?”

“My feeling is that we need to be questioning the amber flags, and training people to notice it because it’s not something we naturally notice. We all want to think the best of people so the culture can be ‘actually, I’m going to say something’ not in the way of saying ‘you awful individual’ buy rather by something like ‘oh that felt a bit close to the line there’.”

The University of Worcester has been running its Bystander Intervention Programme since 2016, training students in how to recognise problematic behaviour, violence and abuse and giving them the confidence to intervene.

Victim blaming myths are discussed and dispelled, and students are taught how to spot problems, support victims and have difficult conversations with a friend whose behaviour they aren’t comfortable with.

People who take the programme are given the chance to practice their new skills with case studies, role play and reflection questions.

For more information on the University of Worcester’s Bystander Intervention Programme, visit our dedicated webpage.

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