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April 21, 2015

What makes someone a bystander? – Lesson Plan


After a video surfaced of fraternity members at Oklahoma University singing a racist chant, many people expressed shock and outrage. The video, along with the discussion surrounding it on group behavior, provides an opportunity to explore the psychology of why some people remain bystanders instead of choosing to intervene. This lesson will help students understand these behavioral processes and their role in our lives and society.


Psychology, Social Studies

Estimated Time

1-2 class periods, plus homework for extension assignments if desired

Grade level 



  • Computer access
  • Handout #1: “We Are All Bystanders”
  • Handout #2: “The ‘In’ Group”
  • Handout #3: “Two students expelled from OU for leading racist chant” (optional)
  • Video: NewsHour report on OU (link below)


To develop an understanding of bystanders, students will:

  • Become familiar with key psychological concepts related to bystander behavior
  • Discuss how personal identity and group behavior affects individuals’ reactions to a bystander situation
  • Use these concepts to analyze their own choices in a bystander situation

Main Activity

  1. Students read an excerpt from the article “We Are All Bystanders” (Handout #1) on the psychology of group behavior. Ask students: what does “diffusion of responsibility” mean? Where do they see it playing out in everyday life?
  2. Students read “The ‘In’ Group” (Handout #2), an example of those behaviors in a school setting. Ask students: what caused the student in “The ‘In’ Group” to be a bystander? How did her identification with the group help her ignore the other bullied student?
  3. Watch the NewsHour recap on the incident at the University of Oklahoma, including a clip of the students’ chant. (Note: the video is censored, but still may be upsetting to students. Please screen it yourself ahead of time and show it in class with caution. As an alternative, you can ask students to read Handout #3, a Washington Post article on the video.)
  4. Watch the video of students from Student Reporting Labs reacting to the incident at OU.
  5. Students reflect on their own reactions in a personal journal entry, which they do not share with the class.
  6. Ask students to discuss, either in small groups or as a class: what roles did people play in the OU video? How did each person influence what was happening in the video? Why is it so hard to speak up when someone is engaging in racist behaviors? What would you have done, and why?

Extension Activity

  1. Ask students to read the article “Little Things Are Big” from Facing History, a firsthand account from a man who chose not to help a woman getting off the subway. Divide students into small groups to discuss: what caused this man to make this choice? With what groups did he identify, as he described in the article, and how did his identity influence his decision-making? Do you think he made the right choice? Why or why not?
  2. You can connect this topic to recent events in the news regarding observers who decided to film an interaction, whether within a group, or an outside encounter with police in the community. Talk about this aspect of the issue with this article from PBS NewsHour about recording law enforcement officials. Ask students: Why do people record these incidents? What do you need to think about when deciding whether to start recording or not?

This lesson was produced in conjunction with Facing History and Ourselves. Special thanks to Jocelyn Stanton.

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