Nigella Lawson and the Bystander Effect

Nigella Lawson (Screen shot from

Nigella Lawson’s case reminds us of a strange phenomenon. (Screen shot from

By now, most of you have seen the pictures of art tycoon Charles Saatchi grabbing his wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, by the throat while out dining at Mayfair in Central London. The pictures were shocking and disturbing as was Saatchi’s ridiculous explanation that the couple were just having a “playful tiff.” Just a few weeks after the photos were published, Lawson petitioned for divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behavior. On July 31, The Guardian reported that the first step in the divorce process — the decree nisi — had been granted and the divorce will become official six weeks later once a decree absolute is issued.

When I first read about this story, I was worried that Lawson might stay in what appears to be an abusive relationship. If Saatchi was willing to do this in public, it’s likely that the abuse took place in the home as well. For anyone in an abusive relationship, leaving is never easy, even if it appears so for those on the outside looking in. So when I heard that she had decided to seek a divorce, I was happy to learn that she had the courage and strength to walk away from the marriage.

As I continue to think about the story, though, I wonder why none of the witnesses did anything to stop this. Even if the diners didn’t see what was happening, the paparazzi clearly did. If they weren’t willing to intervene as they watched Saatchi grab Lawson’s throat, what would it have taken for them to do so?

There’s a famous study known as the bystander effect, which revealed that people are less likely to offer aid to a victim of a crime if there are other people present. One of the main reasons for this (though there are others) is that in a large group of people responsibility becomes diffused, viz., a person becomes disinclined to act because they believe someone else will take responsibility and help the victim. Of course, this doesn’t always happen, but it seems like the Lawson example is our latest reminder that the bystander effect still exists and happens more frequently than we might like to admit.

These days, though, it seems like the bystander effect not only still exists but has actually become even more prevalent due to our society’s increasing use of technology. Rather than helping a victim of an assault, robbery, etc., the first thing people do is reach for their phones to record whatever is happening. Think about it. Why do we now have so many videos of crimes taking place and so few stories about the “good samaritan?” It seems like we’ve all had this experience or know someone who has reacted this way during some kind of similar scenario.

You might wish to contend by saying something like, “Well, it’s because everyone has a camera phone now and not because people are less inclined to help than before, so we’re really just getting more videos from the people who would’ve never acted with or without the camera.” While I think there’s something to that argument, I’d respond that since everyone has a camera now and we have seen so many eyewitness videos we’ve actually been conditioned to respond to events by recording them rather than by acting. Therefore, the amount of people that would’ve assisted the victim pre-camera has been significantly decreased because of the conditioning we’ve all undergone because of the camera.

Now I’m not advocating that we all become vigilantes and start prowling the streets with clubs to take the law into our own hands. What I find interesting though, is the way that technology might be exacerbating the bystander effect. With each new piece of technology, we seem to be drawn inward, seeing ourselves much more as individuals than as part of a society.

The more I think about it, the more it becomes clear that Lawson was a victim not only of Saatchi but of the bystander effect as well. And while that’s a shame, it seems like it might be something we all have to get used to. Hope you’re not next.


CharlieCharlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.

Previously from Charlie Crespo:
Monday’s Viral Video: Bun in the Oven
The People Have Spoken … and They Want Waffles
Bringing It All Back Home: Clint Dempsey Returns to Major League Soccer
An Interview With @NeinQuarterly’s Dr. Eric Jarosinski
Monday’s Viral Video: Florida Gators Coach Will Muschamp on the Relationship Between Concussions and Woodpeckers

2 responses to “Nigella Lawson and the Bystander Effect

  1. True, but technology is not altogether unhelpful. If someone had stopped the incident it probably would have just happened again later. But video evidence is much more damaging to Saatchi’s credibility. Now anyone who has seen the video, knows that he is a dirtbag. Still, when a man’ hands are on a woman’s throat someone needs to grow a pair and put and end to that.

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