Good as our intentions might be, few of us feel inclined to take initiative in a crisis while other capable do-gooders are nearby.
A survey conducted by researchers from York University and University of Toronto in Canada suggests individuals with autism may not be quite as susceptible to this hesitance.
Researchers have known about the bystander effect since the late 1960s, when the American social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané found male undergraduate students were less likely to report smoke when in groups compared to when they were alone.
Generally speaking, most of us tend to base our actions on the behavior of other people. A lack of response in a crisis can risk a stalemate where the passive nature of a group means nobody judges a situation as dangerous or threatening.
Darley and Latané speculated that the effect could also be the product of a kind of social dilution – the bigger the crowd, the less responsible individuals feel for their own actions.
Half a century later, it's clear humans aren't quite so simple, with bystanders intervening (or failing to step in) on account of a wide range of reasons, depending on the nature of the emergency, the vulnerability of those who seem to be affected, and proximity to the crisis.
Now we can include the neurological wiring of those in the crowd, with self-reported evidence suggesting people with autism spectrum disorder ( ASD) might be less easily influenced by the social norms that would keep others from stepping up.
"Our study shows that to the extent that they would act if they saw something wrong, employees with autism were much more likely to intervene, regardless of the number of people present," says lead author Lorne Hartman, a behavioral scientist from York University.
"And in situations where they would not intervene, they were more likely to identify the influence of others as the reason, whereas neurotypical employees were more reluctant to acknowledge this."
Autism covers a wide variety of behaviors and responses to stimuli, often involving social situations. Not only can the condition make it harder for some to communicate, it can impede timely interpretations of social cues, sometimes making it difficult to 'read the room'.
Hartman and his colleagues wondered if this might make individuals with ASD more or less susceptible to social phenomena like the bystander effect.
A total of 67 participants recruited through social media were provided with an online link to a survey requesting personal information, as well as responses to a number of short scenarios describing hypothetical events in a workplace that involved either some kind of organizational dysfunction, ethical issue, or operational inefficiency.
Among those surveyed were 33 individuals with an ASD diagnosis, which was further confirmed using a short Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) test for adults.
The results implied that employees with ASD would be more likely to report practices they regarded as inefficient or dysfunctional, and less likely to feel any social pressure to remain silent.
In cases where they did feel guided by their colleagues and were inclined to mask their behavior in order to fit in, those with ASD tended to feel they'd be more honest about that influence.
For Hartman, the research is more than just an academic interest. His son, Braxton, not only has an ASD diagnosis himself, but is a researcher and public advocate on autism inclusivity.
"We're looking at this from two angles," says Braxton Hartman, also one of the paper's authors.
"One is looking at helping organizations be more ethical and efficient, but also, helping people like myself – people on the spectrum – find gainful employment by helping to change the societal understanding of autism."
This research was published in Autism Research.