What prompts us to ignore the distress of other people? We've all found ourselves in situations - the times we've seen someone taunted and didn't intervene; when we've driven past a car that has broken down, assuming another driver would pull over to help.

We've noticed a young man slumped on the pavement, and not gone over to check if he's okay. We witness a problem; consider doing something, then respond by doing... nothing. Something holds us back. So why don't we help in these situations?

Apathy can immobilise us when we feel the impulse to flee and help at the same time. Researchers have studied the phenomenon and attribute the occurrence of passive by-standing (known as the bystander effect) to a “diffusion of responsibility": when people believe there are other witnesses to an emergency, they feel less personal responsibility to intervene. They assume someone else will help. The end result is altruistic inertia. Researchers also suggest that we don't act on occasion due to the effects of “confusion of responsibility," where bystanders fail to help someone in distress because they don't want to be mistaken for the cause of that distress. What's more, sometimes bystanders don't intervene in an emergency because they are misled by the reactions of the people around them. We succumb to what's known as “pluralistic ignorance"—the tendency to mistake one another's calm demeanour as a sign that no emergency is actually taking place. There are strong social norms that reinforce this– the 'Keep calm, and carry on', mentality is one such. We adhere to these norms, because it's embarrassing to get in a panic when no danger really exists!

What can further compound the issue of whether we will help another person out or not is how comfortable we are about feeling certain feelings in ourselves. Some people are fantastically empathetic and helpful when it comes to showing care and compassion for other people, but have very little empathy when it comes to dealing with someone else's outrage. Some close down in the face of violence and abuse, and some cut off completely from emotions they are frightened of in themselves.

Whilst passivity can be simply the first reaction to perceived danger and an avoidance strategy engaged in the hope that the problem will go away, it can also be something more sinister; say when someone passively or actively connives in hostilities they witness. The reasons people join forces with aggressors are manifold - they may fear punishment if they don't go along with the scheme; they themselves may bear a grudge towards the targeted person or persons, or just feel no real connection with them and shut off from feeling concern for them because of this. Or sadder still, they may go along with the situation on account of boredom or to revel in a sense of schadenfreude! In such cases apathy becomes not just a lack of empathy but a betrayal of it.

Less disturbing but no less socially debilitating is an inability to help others because of ill-health, or if we've experienced the shock of witnessing appalling acts or events. Distressing events such as sudden illness, bereavement, abuse and accidents can be traumatic, and draw our attention and energies elsewhere. Although, this sort of apathy is usually only of temporary duration, after trauma of this kind people can feel exhausted and emotional and distressed reactions for weeks, sometimes months. If this happens to you it's best not to be hard on yourself – your feelings will return eventually.

What can we do to turn from passive bystander to active helper?

Being passive can be an obstacle to living life fully. It keeps us from forming alliances and feeling connected to other people. It can lead us into a lonely state, one that keeps us from doing what we can to help others and that, in turn, keeps us from asking others for help. Those who actively help others are thought to share some personality traits; stronger sense of attachment to others and their feelings of responsibility for the welfare of others. Researchers have found that these tendencies are commonly instilled in helpers from being shown tolerance, care, and empathy themselves in childhood.

So is there anything you can do to kick to touch that inertia? Here are our five top tips:

1. Connect with others who value empathy and cooperation

We need the support and encouragement of others who value empathy, so go out and find like-minded people. There are plenty there – you just need to find them!

2. Be mindful and alert to apathy in yourself and others.

Avoid hanging about with apathetic people. Be alert to what others say and don't say, and what they do and don't do. Ignore comments like, ''Nobody else minds, so why should I?'', or people who tell you to ''Lighten up'' or say ''Who cares anyway?'' Act on things you are impassioned about and concern you.

3. Be more self-compassionate

Show yourself small kindnesses each day should help you express empathy for others more readily.

4. Lead by example

Those who are not completely infected with apathy may be energised into action and follow your lead.

5. Don't wait for the prisoners, they can free themselves!

Don't hang about to free all the apathetic people around you. They may complain or even try to block your actions. So rather than wait for them to see things as you do, go ahead anyway and feel good that your bit of good in the world may benefit others also.

And finally, some encouraging news - there's evidence to suggest that the more aware we are of effects like diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect, the less likely we are to engage in them.