Digest No. 06 - June 2019

Will Student Bystanders Intervene? Testing an Intention-Assessment Instrument

Mayhew, M. J., M. A. Lo, L. S. Dahl, and B. S. Selznick. 2018. “Assessing Students’ Intention to Intervene in a Bystander Situation.” Journal of College Student Development 59 (6), 762–768.


The purpose of this study was to introduce and test an instrument designed to assess students’ intention to intervene in bystander situations related to sexual and partner violence. The authors grounded the development of their instrument in the social-ecological model of violence, developed by Dahlberg and Krug (2002), and Latané and Darley’s (1970) decision model of helping. By combining environmental and contextual considerations with cognitive processes, the scenario-based instrument is intended to fill a gap in current measures of bystander intervention by college students. The instrument uses multiple scenarios and possible behavioral responses to measure students’ intention to intervene along the continuum of sexual and partner violence while also considering multiple perspectives and relationships to those involved.


The scenarios and items were initially devised in 2006 as a component of a grant competition from the U.S. Department of Education to study campus violence (see Mayhew, Caldwell, and Goldman 2011). For the final instrument tested in this study, respondents were presented with two hypothetical sexual and partner assault scenarios, each casting respondents in differing relationships to the characters described in the prompts. The first scenario describes a male student, who has not been drinking very much, leaving a party with a female student, who is clearly intoxicated. Respondents read this scenario three separate times assuming different relationships to its actors (namely, friends with the male student, friends with the female student, and a stranger to both students). The second scenario presents a situation in which upstairs neighbors who are known to be in a turbulent relationship are heard arguing, with some noises leading the downstairs neighbor (the respondent) to believe that the situation has turned physically violent. After being presented with these scenarios, respondents were asked to rate the likelihood of reacting with specified behaviors (for example, saying something at the time to either actor or calling an authority figure).


Results from confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) suggest the items on this instrument, combined across all scenarios, acceptably fit a one-factor model. In addition, the Cronbach’s alpha is .92, indicating high covariability among the 14 items. In other words, these scenarios and items work together to measure college students’ bystander intervention intentions.

Subsequent research (see Dahl 2019) using this measure assessed the scenarios in which students were most likely to intervene. Students were most likely to intervene in the party scenario in which the student was a friend of the woman under duress. Students were the least likely to intervene in the party scenario where they did not know either the man or the woman.


This instrument offers another vehicle for the assessment of students’ likelihood to intervene as bystanders in situations involving possible sexual and partner violence beyond attitudes toward rape, willingness to intervene, and past intervening behaviors. When designing educational programs for faculty members, staff, and students, campus leaders should consider the present barriers to intervention in these situations, including the potential bystander’s relationship to the victim and/or the perpetrator, diffusion of responsibility, pluralistic ignorance (when unaware, inactive bystanders look to other unaware, inactive bystanders for cues on how to react and all subsequently fail to identify the situation as one requiring intervention), a bystander’s self-perception of his or her helping ability and potential for intervention in the situation, and ambiguity of the situation. These hurdles influence bystanders’ attitudes toward intervening, as well as their perception of social pressure and the degree of difficulty associated with interventional behaviors.

About the Authors

Matthew J. Mayhew is William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor in Educational Administration at the Ohio State University.

Marc A. Lo is director of the Penn First Plus Office at the University of Pennsylvania.

Laura S. Dahl is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the Ohio State University.

Benjamin S. Selznick is an assistant professor in the School of Strategic Leadership Studies at James Madison University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Dahl, L. S. 2019. “How Do We Know Someone Will Intervene? The Validation of a Survey Instrument Designed to Measure Collegiate Bystander Intervention Disposition.” PhD Dissertation. The Ohio State University.

Dahlberg, L. L., and E. G. Krug. 2002. “Violence—A Global Public Health Problem.” In World Report on Violence and Health, edited by E. G. Krug, L. L. Dahlberg, J. A. Mercy, A. B. Zwi, and R. Lozano, 1–21. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization.

Latané, B., and J. M. Darley. 1970. The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mayhew, M. J., R. J. Caldwell, and E. G. Goldman. 2011. “Defining Campus Violence: A Phenomenological Analysis of Community Stakeholder Perspectives.” Journal of College Student Development 52: 253–269.