The Bystander Effect by Catherine Sanderson: Data-Driven Moral Bravery

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The Bystander Effect by Catherine Sanderson Book Cover Image

Rating: Red StarRed StarRed Star

Category: Non-fiction

Format: Audiobook (borrowed from library)

Content Warnings: Racism, references to racial violence, misogyny, sexual assault and rape, homophobia, bullying


Most of us have heard of the bystander effect. It can be a major limitation to moral action in a variety of situations, from life-threatening emergencies to sexist comments in the workplace. But what actually is the bystander effect? How does it occur? And why is challenging it so important for communities and social justice?

In her book The Bystander Effect, Catherine Sanderson uses decades of research to answer these questions, outlining the psychological basis of the bystander effect in a way that empowers us to step up, challenge harmful behaviour, and become active ‘moral rebels’ rather than passive bystanders.


First Page Impressions

I certainly appreciated the intention of The Bystander Effect right from the start. Underscoring the importance of standing up for what is right, and supporting readers in doing so, seems a particularly relevant goal in the current sociopolitical climate.

Sanderson’s well-researched book immediately had me convinced of the pressing reality of the bystander effect. I was shocked to realise the discrepancy between how many of us like to think we would help in situation x, y or z and how many of us actually do – a perfect example of non-fiction writing acting as a much-needed wake-up call.

The Bystander Effect by Catherine Sanderson Book Review Pinterest Graphic

Final Page Reflections

Although I respected the intention and premise of The Bystander Effect, as I progressed I got the feeling that this could have been a much shorter read.

All of the experimental data included by the author was interesting to start with, but over time it became a bit repetitive and heavy. I preferred the real-life examples, some taken from Sanderson’s own experiences and those of her family, but unfortunately, these more personable examples were few and far between.

Because of this, The Bystander Effect is not particularly accessible for the general reader – I would instead recommend it those who have a specific interest in social psychology.

With that being said, I was glad to have persevered to the final chapters as these were the most useful, giving tips on reducing the bystander effect and becoming a ‘moral rebel’. While some people seem to innately be more immune to the bystander effect, the good news is that even those of us who are introverted and conflict-averse can train ourselves to step up when our voices are needed!


The Bystander Effect by Catherine Sanderson Mood Cloud

Diversity and Representation

Within this book, Sanderson challenges multiple forms of discrimination, moving fluidly between social issues from body image to police brutality.

However, she is careful to avoid creating a hierarchy within these issues. The Bystander Effect makes it clear that there is no situation, however seemingly minor or easy to dismiss, in which it is not worth asserting equality.

Fund Literacy, Care for the Environment

  • Psychology
  • Discrimination
  • Courage and fear
  • Community
  • Justice
  • Morality
  • Social pressure

Beyond the Book

I’ve recently noticed a common theme in my recent non-fiction reading: the gap between our self-image, who we like to think we are, and how we actually behave. We may not think we’re committing racial harm against POC in our everyday lives, but we are. We may believe we’d stand up to discrimination in any form, but when it happens it’s all too easy to protect ourselves rather than challenge the status quo.

With than in mind, I think self-awareness is so important to help us overcome our own barriers and move through the world with more compassion. The good news is that reading is proven to enhance this quality – as if we needed any further excuse!

Discussion Questions

  1. Which facts and statistics in The Bystander Effect did you find most interesting or shocking?
  2. Think of examples from your own life. When have you been a passive bystander, and, conversely, when have you stood up and challenged harmful words or behaviour?
  3. Are there any tips you will take away from this book to help you become more of a ‘moral rebel’?

Favourite quote:

“Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

The Bystander Effect Martin Luther King Quote

Read if: You want to boost your moral bravery with a data-driven source.

If you enjoy non-fiction with a practical focus on social justice, check out Talking Across the Divide by Justin Lee.

Have you read The Bystander Effect? Have any non-fiction recommendations to share? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!

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