The bystander effect: Would you stop to help?

By Andrew Wittenberg  |  Posted Feb 25th, 2013 @ 10:53pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Helping a stranger in trouble seems like a no-brainer. We all like to think we'd help someone in distress, but time and time again research shows we don't.

We've all seen examples of what psychologists call "the bystander effect": the idea that people are less likely to help when more people are around. KSL News recently put Utahns and out-of-towners to the test to see if the crowd holds them back or if they jump into action when faced with emergency situations.

Our hidden camera investigation began on a cold January day in downtown Salt Lake. The Winter Outdoor Retailer convention was in full-swing and our actor, a KSL producer named Matt, posed as a sick person on the side of the street.

Test No. 1: Sick man in a large, out-of-town crowd

During the first scenario, Mat was slumped over near the steps of the Salt Palace Convention Center. Within seconds, a group of convention-goers walked past. They all saw him, but keep right on walking.

Next, our hidden camera focused on Chelsea Tilley of Toronto. She stopped before crossing West Temple. As Matt increased his calls for help, other out-of-towners also stopped to look, but they keep walking — most barely breaking stride.

Online Poll

What would you do if you saw a man slumped over on the street?
1. Stop and help him immediately, no deliberation needed
2. Slow down and assess the situation to make sure it's what it appears to be, then go in and help
3. Stay back for safety's sake, but call police immediately on my cellphone
4. Keep walking, but call police just to make sure someone checks the guy out
5. Keep walking. Someone else will help him.
6. Not sure
What would you do if you saw a man slumped over on the street?
1. Stop and help him immediately, no deliberation needed
2. Slow down and assess the situation to make sure it's what it appears to be, then go in and help
3. Stay back for safety's sake, but call police immediately on my cellphone
4. Keep walking, but call police just to make sure someone checks the guy out
5. Keep walking. Someone else will help him.
6. Not sure

But Tilley appeared to think about it for a minute, then she finally decided to help when another group walked up, about to approach Matt. While we watched what unfolded on video, psychologist and University of Utah professor Dr. Paul White gave us insight into what's going on in Tilley's mind.

"I think the person who actually walks over toward his shoe first and looks down almost gives license for others to start to come back, ask questions, see if he's OK," White said.

We soon confronted our would-be good Samaritans and spilled the beans on what was happening. Tilley then explained why she stopped and why she waited so long to actually offer help.

"I thought he was having a heart attack," she said. "Where I'm from, there's homeless people on the streets, so you don't know if it's someone that's hurt, or … I don't know."

Tilley said she hopes others would stop and ask if an apparently sick person needed help; but with this experiment, most did not. In fact, it took a full 5 minutes before she and others finally did render aid.

Test No. 2: Sick man in a smaller, home crowd

For our second experiment, we moved our sick man to a place where we'd find more Utahns. For the first part of the experiment, Matt dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt; for the second part, it changed to a suit and tie.

We witnessed the bystander effect for a number of minutes until one man appeared to think about stopping to help; he even turned back to look a few times. Right on his heels came a trio of ladies, including Heidi McEwen and Vera Mengucci. They stopped immediately to make sure Matt was OK.

"I think we all kind of noticed the person at first, then we all kind of made the consensus that we should see if that person was OK," McEwen said.


People are sitting, walking by, (thinking,) 'Oh, I've got to go to work. This person behind me is going to help,' (or) 'Oh, I've got to go shop. Someone else is going to go help.'

–Dr. Paul White, UofU psychologist


"It looked like he was deliberating whether he should go back or not," Menguicci said of the first hesitant bystander. "Then when we went back, he decided to come back with us."

In this case, it also took a full 5 minutes before anyone stopped. But when Matt changed clothes into a dress shirt, tie and khaki pants, it only took about 45 seconds for a homeless couple to respond.

Thirty seconds after we've set up again, a woman walked by, stopped, looked back, and then keeps on walking. White described her actions as "diffusion of responsibility."

"They are sitting, walking by, (thinking,) ‘Oh, I've got to go to work. This person behind me is going to help,' (or) ‘Oh, I've got to go shop. Someone else is going to go help,'" he explained.

Fortunately, for our ailing actor, Mary Woodhead was around. She stopped to help, but later admitted the reason she did so was because of how strange it looked for a businessman to be sitting on a sidewalk.

"Sometimes you see people napping who, and it's probably an unfair bias, but you look at them and think, ‘Well, they have no place else to go so they're napping on the street,'" Woodhead said.

Test No. 3: Criminal activity in a public place

In our third test, we took it to the next level and had our actor pretend to be involved in criminal activity at Salt Lake City's Intermodal Hub. It's a bustling interchange for thousands each day, so there were plenty of people to witness what was going on.

We arrived early in the morning, when there weren't as many people there, and locked up a bicycle. When the crowds come, Matt began cutting away at the lock with a hacksaw.

Did you know?

Utah law states that a citizen's arrest can be made when:

  1. the bystander witnesses a crime being committed, or
  2. the bystander has reasonable belief a person has committed a crime.

However, it's important to note that a person making a citizens arrest exposes himself or herself to possible lawsuits and/or criminal charges.

Source: www.saltlakecriminaldefense.com.

Similar to our last two experiments, a lot of people seemed to notice what's going on but no one stopped. In fact, Matt was able to cut the bike lock multiple times and walk away. No one said a word.

Some people we met said there's a chance the actor might not have been stealing the bike at all. "I would trust people to think, ‘Oh, that's his bike and he's just forgot his combination,'" one man said.

White, however, said this is another classic example of the bystander effect.

"That's the diffusion of the responsibility angle," he said, "because you've got police, you've got UTA security, there are other people who should be watching out for any criminal activity. And (the bystanders) may interpret in their minds, ‘If he's doing something illegal, someone else is going to stop him. I can't get involved, I have to get to work.'"

Salt Lake City police advise the public to call 911 or alert security and not intervene when they witness what they think may be a crime. In this case, the bystander effect actually works well with the police department's advice.

"Unless something really grabs us, unless something really turns us and causes us to get involved, we're more likely to not want to get involved in situations that can be deemed as dangerous; or we can make easy attributions or easy rationalizations that someone else will help," White said.

In the end, one person did end up reporting the fake bicycle theft to police.

The takeaway from our experiments: If you do find yourself in a situation where you need help, don't simply ask for help blindly. Assign responsibility to a particular person to alert security or call 911.

The same goes for reporting a crime: Don't let it fall to someone else, because chances are it will go unreported.

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