This knowledge paper provides a synthesis of the empirical research literature related to bystander action and primary prevention, with a particular focus on the primary prevention of violence against women and family violence. The literature included was empirical studies of programmes and reviews of empirical studies. Coverage was restricted to those programmes whose main purpose was primary prevention. Programmes which target perpetrators have been excluded.
The rapid review examined four questions:
- How can bystander behaviour best be understood, giving an overview of the various different theoretical frameworks that have demonstrated as useful by empirical research?
- What does the Australian and international evidence base on bystander interventions demonstrate?
- What are the moderating factors, enablers and barriers to prosocial bystander behaviour (including preconditions, cultural settings and/or contexts)?
- What is known about where, for whom and under what circumstances bystander programming and activity may be valuable?
A bystander is someone who sees or is otherwise aware of a potentially harmful event that is happening to someone else but is not originally involved in it. While there are some instances due to the nature of the bystander (e.g. training or employment in a particular profession) and the form of harm (e.g. child abuse), when there may be legal obligations for bystanders to take action, in other situations the perception of a moral obligation is what motivates bystanders to become involved in a situation. Prosocial bystander action in relation to tackling gender discrimination and prevention of violence against women involves responding across a spectrum of possible situations from hearing a stigmatising/derogatory/ insulting comment or sexist joke, through noticing behaviour that represents possible threats/cues that violence is likely, to noticing behaviour that indicates that sexual/physical abuse/violence has started.
Understanding bystander behaviour
The knowledge represented by Latané and Darley’s (1970) framework for understanding bystander behaviour has stood the test of time. Empirical studies have demonstrated that a wide range of theoretical frameworks are useful in the design of prevention programmes and from the large body of empirical research to date, a set of design principles for use in designing and implementing bystander programmes can be extracted.
The evidence base on bystander programmes/interventions
Over the last ten years a considerable amount of new research has been published. There are clear and positive changes reported consistently within the literature for participants in bystander programmes across behavioural, cognitive and attitudinal domains. This enables the conclusion that bystander approaches are effective in addressing violence against women and family violence and in promoting gender equity.
There are opportunities for implementing bystander programmes in every setting within society, and the goal of achieving gender equality requires that we utilise all of these. Nothing less than coordinated and mutually reinforcing efforts across all sectors that are sustained over generations is necessary to achieve gender equality and reap the benefits in health, wellbeing, and economic growth that this will yield.
The evidence base demonstrates that transferability of specific programmes or interventions into different socio-cultural contexts cannot be assumed but must be tested in practice; this has been done in only very few cases in the literature. Programmes/interventions need to be tailored to different socio-cultural environments.
There are still many questions that are not answerable from the knowledge accumulated. One of the reasons for this is that research has rarely included measurement of all the different variables necessary to fully understand the relative effects of different programme components, let alone to compare different programmes. Very few studies directly compare different programmes. The current state of knowledge stops short of enabling full understanding of what exactly works, where, for whom, and why. In particular, what this means is that there is no possibility of identifying any best/most promising way forward in terms of a single project or study.
Recommendations for Policy
Experience in other countries has indicated the importance of legal mandates for bystander programming. The lack of existence of appropriate federal or state mandate for programmes is identified as a barrier – and could usefully be considered for educational and workplace settings. A political and moral mandate for such work, particularly in terms of intersectional bystander programming is found in Australia’s ratification of international human rights covenants and treaties, as well as in the oft-mentioned Australian values of respect for the equal worth, dignity and freedom of the individual.
It is also necessary to advocate for dedicated funding for primary prevention using bystander approaches, without compromising the necessary levels of funding for adequate response systems to violence against women and family violence.
Recommendations for Practice
Recognising the importance of social norms as evidenced in the behaviour of particularly high status or authority groups within society, the importance of such groups adopting respectful behaviour in relation to their dealings with each other cannot be emphasised too highly. Provision of training and an appropriate code of conduct is necessary and should be mandatory. Furthermore, examining opportunities to provide training that acknowledges the multiple different intersectional factors that result in discrimination and harassment is needed.
In addition to programmes where bystander training is a key aim, encouraging the inclusion of a bystander component in a wide variety of programmes should be considered. This includes promoting bystander behaviour in relation to challenging sexism and other sources of discrimination, in relation to gender equity and can be positioned as based in protecting and promoting the human rights of all (or being a good citizen).
Programme funders and designers should investigate further the use of new ICTs such as web-based training and resources, apps, and serious games, and examine whether cultural translation of existing resources produced overseas are necessary. Irrespective of the types of programmes and methods funded, programme designers and funders should use the design principles which in summary are: comprehensiveness; varied teaching methods; sufficient dosage; theory driven; promoting positive relationships; appropriately timed; socio-culturally relevant; include outcome evaluation; and implemented by well-trained staff.
Recommendations for Research
The methods adopted for this rapid review have meant that a number of potentially important areas of research have not been fully explored, although insights they offer have been captured through the inclusion of selected reviews and articles/reports; these might usefully be investigated at a later date:
- Tackling racism and other forms of discrimination;
- Promoting gender equity and gender equality;
- Fathering, particularly promoting engaged fathering;
- Engaging men in sexual and reproductive health;
- Promoting healthy relationships/respectful relationships education;
- Criminology literature, particularly on peer influences on perpetrators;
- Environmental criminology, for possible further insights into preconditions, cultural settings and/or contexts.
This report has noted the small amount of research specific to people with disabilities, non-majority ethnic groups (including indigenous peoples), and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and non-gender binary communities. This deserves urgent attention. Another area where research is limited is in settings other than educational ones.
Important specific areas for further research are:
- • The relationship between programme outcomes and programme differential integration of gender-related content in bystander focussed programmes.
- • Identification of community and setting-level factors such as policies and norms that have the potential to influence youths’ ability and desire to enact prosocial bystander behaviours.
- Research is also needed into programmes with faculty, staff and administrators in educational settings.
- • Further articulation of mechanisms that leverage individual change in the service of transforming cultures in different settings.
- • The advantages and disadvantages of bystander training specific to prevention of violence against women and family violence compared to human rights-based bystander training that tackles all forms of discrimination and stigmatisation.
Measurement in evaluation research
Measurement of bystander behaviour in relation to opportunity needs to be included in the evaluation of all programmes, even if there is no explicit bystander component. The modules developed for the VicHealth survey of bystander knowledge, attitudes and behaviours (Pennay and Powell 2012) provide a basis for such measurement, and the findings from this survey (Pennay and Powell 2012; Powell 2012), provide useful comparative data.