Bystander Mobilization

The following is an excerpt from our book, Safe School Ambassadors: Harnessing Student Power to Stop Bullying and Violence, pages 162-166.

Most bystander mobilization efforts have two common themes: they are usually driven by adults and implemented by teachers, and they attempt to reach out to all bystanders equally, either en masse or in classes. Here are a few of the typical examples of such efforts:

• Assemblies and speakers. These are typically short-term events, lasting from an hour to a day, that have limited long-term impact. They can be expensive and take time that few schools can afford to give up.

• Inspirational messages. Quotes and stories of heroes and heroines are read over the PA system as part of morning announcements or placed throughout the school on posters. Unfortunately, few students remember the thought for the day once they’ve started thinking about what’s for lunch or where that attractive girl or guy is today.

• Behavior identification and modification campaigns. These typically take the form of posters carrying one or more types of messages: the specific behaviors involved in bullying, the costs or consequences of bullying, don’t bully others, or how to defend yourself against bullies. Although we have seen instances where student-made posters appeared to be well received (partly due to a fairly comprehensive school-wide character development initiative), these campaigns alone generally have minimal impact on the behavior of aggressors.

• Social-emotional curricula. For these to be done well, three conditions must be met: the teachers must see their value, they must be trained and equipped to teach the lessons effectively, and they must do so consistently. These curricula use up instructional minutes that are already in high demand as teachers respond to pressure to teach academic subject areas.

Unfortunately, these efforts have one fundamental limitation: students, especially at the middle and high school levels, pay much more attention to the cues of their peers than the directives of adults when determining what kinds of behavior are acceptable.19 Ken Rigby, an adjunct professor in the University of South Australia’s School of Education, says, “The difficulty of promoting more proactive bystander behavior should not be underestimated. This research suggests that teachers’ expectations of how students should act in bystander situations have little or no influence on student behavior. This is particularly so for secondary students. Directly instructing students about how they should behave may in fact be counter - productive, especially with boys. Teacher influence needs to be more indirect and subtle.”20

The Missing Link: Norm Changers

Designing more effective bystander mobilization strategies requires knowing more precisely how the social norms followed by the bystanders are established and changed. Within the large set of bystanders in a given school (roughly eight hundred students in a middle school of a thousand), there exists a much smaller set of students. This smaller group comprises the socially influential opinion leaders of each of the school’s diverse social cliques and groups. These are the students who shape the behavioral norms that guide other students’ behavior and in some cases condone mistreatment despite all the rules adults have created to stop it. In his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell identified the processes by which social norms are established and changed. Several important insights in his book can be applied to student-on-student mistreatment.

First, as Gladwell writes, “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.”21 He makes the case that an afternoon ride for Paul Revere’s would not have been as significant; the fact that Revere delivered his message late at night and had to wake people up increased the recipients’ sense of its importance, and thus how they responded.

The fact that seemingly subtle environmental messages have significant impacts on people’s behavior is confirmed by the “broken windows” theory, developed by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling that is credited with triggering the sharp decline in New York City’s crime rate in the 1990s. Wilson and Kelling argued, and subsequently proved, that when the little things like broken windows and graffiti are left unattended, people sense from the environment that no one cares, no one is in charge, and the rules and laws cannot be enforced because the norms have deteriorated. Making seemingly small improvements to the environment had huge positive repercussions throughout the city. The same can be said for schools: cleaning up the more subtle and relatively benign mistreatment that happens below the waterline will have a powerful influence on visible violence. But who is best to do that cleanup?

The second insight Gladwell makes is that students have something adults don’t: “We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present.”22 But the many examples and studies Gladwell cites show that the impact or “stickiness” of a message is vastly increased not by presenting new or more compelling information but by tinkering in some small way with the presentation of the idea. “There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.”23 So while adults would naturally think that they have the knowledge and life experience to develop the high-quality ideas that will help prevent or stop the below-the-waterline mistreatment, their relative lack of success in this arena suggests that they might not have found the irresistible packaging yet. And looking at the way ideas race through popular youth culture further suggests that students might know something adults don’t, and can’t, know, especially the students who have that knack for saying the right thing in the right way at the right time.

But which bystanders?

The third insight comes from Gladwell’s Law of the Few, which holds that the spread of an epidemic, whether an idea or a disease, is influenced by three kinds of people:

Mavens, who have the knowledge and social skills to start word-of-mouth epidemics24
Salesmen, who have the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing25
Connectors, the gregarious and intensely social people who “know everybody” and always seem to be at the center of events26

In a school, the mavens are often the ones other students look to for social cues; they know what’s what and who’s who and feed into students’ desire to fit in and belong. They are the ones who can best make those little changes in the social environment (for example, encouraging a friend to step down from a confrontation).

In a way, whatever they do is cool not because of what they do but because of who they are in the eyes of their peers. The salesmen promote the change, properly packaging it so it’s “sticky,” and the connectors spread the word.

Linda Jeffrey, professor of psychology at Rowan University in New Jersey, wrote “Communication of pro-social values in a school community requires empowerment of mavens and connectors who carry the message that bullying is not accepted behavior.”27 Both Gladwell and Jeffrey recognized that particular students – the socially influential bystanders – are pivotal in the process of creating, maintaining, and changing social norms.


19. B. R. Astill, N. T. Feather, and J. P. Keeves, “A Multilevel Analysis of the Effects of Parents, Teachers and Schools on Student Values,” Social Psychology of Education, 2002, 5, 345–363.
20. K. Rigby and B. Johnson, “Bystander Behavior of South Australian School Children: Observing Bullying Behavior and Sexual Coercion,” retrieved January 23, 2006 from, 8.
21. M. Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown, 2002), 139.
22. Gladwell, 2002, 131.
23. Gladwell, 2002, 132.
24. Gladwell, 2002, 67.
25. Gladwell, 2002, 70.
26. Gladwell, 2002, 56.
27. N. D. Feshbach, “Empathy: The Formative Years—Implications for Clinical Practice,” in A. C. Bohart and L. S. Greenberg (eds.), Empathy Reconsidered: Directions for Psychotherapy (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1997), 35.