In Which Yours Truly Almost got Caught Up in the Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect is an interesting phenomenon, in which people become less likely to do the right thing if there are more people present*. In short, everybody thinks that if there was something that should be done, somebody else would already have done it, resulting in nobody doing anything. This is why in an emergency you never say “somebody should call the emergency hotline”, but “You there in the red jacket, call the emergency hotline”.

Today we went for our usual walk at our usual lake. The weather was lovely. Temperatures had risen to 4-5° above zero, sun was shining, no wind.

©Giliell, all rights reserved           The picture is from January, I didn’t take the camera today

Before the current cold spell (and we got off lucky here with -10° C at the lowest) we had lots of warm (+10°C) rain, so when I went to the lake on Wednesday it was still completely open. It froze over since, but of course not completely, and I will not speculate on the thickness of the ice. But when we arrived there, there were people on the ice. Mostly young men (who else…) but a few people with small children as well. Everybody around exclaimed “are they mad???”, but nobody did anything. And… neither did I at first. Because there are so many emotions at once. Disbelief, worry, anger (how stupid can you be, how dare you take the children), but also fear about what will happen if I do something (Including the fear of being accused of wasting emergency service time) and of course the idea that you don’t tattle to the cops. Mr was exactly the same. When I said “I should call the emergency hotline” he was “yes, you should”. Not calling it himself.

Well, I did. It took some time until I got to the person who was responsible, who apparently hadn’t left his office in a while, because he asked me “how many people were there” and I said “about 10” and he said “not at the lake, but on the ice” as if you could find a nice quiet place right now with only 10 people in sight. We walked away after we informed the emergency hotline, because there was nothing left to do. If they’d fallen in, we couldn’t have done anything, so we went to the woods where there are less people.

At least when we returned, the Office of Public Order was there and yelled at people who still thought it was funny to step on the ice but on the other side of the lake. Dudes, when 100 people around say that you’re a fucking idiot, you’re probably not some edgy rebel fighting against the forces of evil. Chances are that you’re just a fucking idiot. Mr said I’d probably saved a life today, but I’m pretty sure the person whose life I possibly saved is pretty angry with the asshole who called the cops. As they say, there’s no glory in prevention.


*Though, as numbers increase so does the likelihood of somebody finally doing something



  1. lumipuna says

    Good for you for calling. If it was a mild and sunny day, the ice was probably softening by the minute.

    In areas where freezing of lakes is more commonplace, the first pioneers tend to not be thrill-seeking young men, but rather older men who’ve seriously gotten into ice fishing hobby. As they saying goes, it takes 5 cm of solid (not spongy) ice to carry a man, or 2 cm to carry a fisherman.

  2. Ice Swimmer says

    lumipuna @ 2

    Yeah. Also, the solid ice only exists on bodies of freshwater. Sea ice is always spongy, I’d imagine especially this winter, because the sea near the shore froze during snowfall.

  3. rq says

    Well done. We’ve had a bad season with ice this year, for this very same reason. A few rescue stories as well.
    Just because it’s been cold, doesn’t mean the river or sea is complying. Waiting to see if anyone gets stuck on an ice floe this spring.

    If you’re a Real Fisherman, at 2 cm you’ve already missed the best fish… after the frost, if you drive out to the country, all the riverbanks are full of such “brave souls”, sitting calmly right above running water, beside open water.

  4. Ice Swimmer says

    Speaking of the solid ice, there’s a Finnish term for the solid ice on lakes and rivers: teräsjää, literally steel ice (teräs = steel*, jää = ice).

    * = Blade is terä, and steel, teräs is the material used for blades.

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