The Ambiguous Relationship Between Witnessing and Acting

6 min read
Malik Earnest/Unsplash

Malik Earnest/Unsplash

Witnessing is an important act in and of itself. The gaze of others can be pressuring and liberating, validating and troubling; knowing others are witnessing can also be cathartic. The relationship between witnessing and behaving, and especially responding, is contentious. The brutal murder that spawned the term bystander effect (or “pluralistic ignorance”) bears witness to this complexity.

In the age of social media, people witness and are exposed to unprecedented levels of suffering. Witnessing and being exposed to a great deal can also lead to gradual desensitization, which in turn lessens the chances of a behavioral response. Emotions are a fundamental aspect of readying and executing behavioral responses; overwhelming our emotional faculties can diminish the likelihood and effectiveness of these responses.


One of the ways in which exposure can hinder behavior is by impeding on the feelings that could have been evoked that motivate behavior. Two streams of research have looked at the relationship between exposure and desensitization: 1) people who are repeatedly exposed to suffering in real life eventually becoming desensitized, and 2) how consuming media content can lead to desensitization.

The desensitization of physicians has been reported on by studies such as Gleichgerrcht and Decety (2014). They found that more experienced physicians (and so, those who had witnessed more suffering) perceived pain less intensely. Just as significantly, they did not report any differences in personal distress as a result of exposure to suffering, meaning that although their perception of how painful the experience of suffering is may have diminished, the sight of suffering did not cause them less distress.

In terms of media content, desensitization, and behavior, Bushman and Anderson’s (2009) findings are instructive. They conducted two experiments to examine this area. Firstly, participants who had played video games were exposed to a conjured situation in which a loud fight breaks out and someone is injured. Participants were split between two groups: those who played a violent video game and those who played a non-violent one. Those who had played the violent game took significantly longer to respond to the fight (p=<0.02). In their second experiment, the participants were split between watching a violent movie and a non-violent one. On departing the screening, they were exposed to a situation in which a young lady with an injured ankle struggled to pick up her crutches. Again, the participants who had watched the non-violent movie responded more quickly than those who had watched the violent one (p=<0.01). It is important to note that this study did not report any differences in the likelihood of assisting the person suffering, however. The negative impact that exposure to violence had upon the speed at which helping behavior was induced is an important finding.

These findings are extended by the work of Mrug, Madan, Cook, and Wright (2015). They looked at exposure to real-life violence and reported that being exposed to some real-life violence had positive effects on empathy, but that this deteriorates when individuals are exposed to high levels of it. They suggest a number of reasons for this finding, including experiencing lower levels of empathy at high levels of violent exposure being a protective mechanism, preventing the individual from becoming overwhelmed. They also note that being exposed to some violence might give individuals access to the perspective of suffering, an empathy well from which people can draw when interacting with the pain of others.

Taras Shypka/Unsplash

Taras Shypka/Unsplash

Secondary Trauma and Compassion Fatigue

Overexposure to media content can also lead to compassion fatigue and “secondary trauma” (or vicarious trauma). Secondary trauma was initially associated with those in frontline professions who experienced a form of trauma through exposure to the traumas of those they were aiding. However, studies such as Comstock and Platania (2017) have reported that secondary trauma can also occur among laypeople through media consumption.

Lamba, Khokhlova, Bhatia, and McHugh (2023) would term this “media-induced secondary trauma,” though their study concerned COVID-related trauma rather than violence.

In another review, Hopwood and Schutte (2017) reported more general negative psychological outcomes for those who consumed more distressing and violent media content, while Holman, Garfin, and Silver (2019) reported the increased impact that consumption of graphic media content had upon inducing acute stress and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

While different from secondary trauma, compassion fatigue has also been found to occur through certain forms of media consumption and can also lead to diminished empathy responses.

Inert Behavioral Patterns

A further explanation for the idea that repeated witnessing and exposure might not lead to responsive behavior is found in the thought that if an initial witnessing of suffering does not lead to a behavioral response, the pattern is set and then further enforced by subsequent witnessing and a subsequent lack of response. This becomes the norm of the individual and is strengthened by gradual desensitization.

Compassion Fatigue Essential Reads

While these negative psychological outcomes are troubling in their own right, the tragedy is deepened in the tension between the idea held by many that being exposed to suffering inherently helps a troubling situation (such as a conflict) or leads to an increased likelihood of a response, when it can, in fact, lead to diminished action.

The finding of Mrug, Madan, Cook, and Wright (2015) could hold the key; we need to know, see, and hear a certain amount, but there comes a point where increased exposure does not lead to an increased likelihood of a response, and beyond that, and more troubling still, a point wherein more exposure leads to less response.

Perhaps most pertinent is the equivocality in the findings in this area. There is a need for each individual to be mindful of their own levels of exposure, and the psychological impact this is taking upon them, and whether or not this aligns with their ideal responses to a situation. It would not be wise to assume that exposing oneself to the suffering of others will necessarily lead to increased levels of empathy and increased consequent behavioral responses.

Each person’s sweet spot will be different. Becoming aware of this is all the more important given the reality that it has never been easier to saturate oneself with suffering and distressing content. The levels of removal and abstraction are also unprecedented, as we are flooded with images of multiple conflicts, brought to us through screens, from thousands of kilometers away, between which many barriers stand that prevent our direct behavioral engagement. This makes for a potent mix of emotional overload and behavioral inertia.

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