For decades, the "bystander effect" (previously) has been a bedrock of received psychological wisdom: "individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present; the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that one of them will help."
Some experiments seem to have borne this out, though these experiments were, of necessity, contrived: "it is ethically and practically difficult to simulate violent emergencies."
Now, an international team of psych researchers have created an empirical account of the bystander effect that punctures the received wisdom, finding that in 9 out of 10 times, bystanders do step up to help; and the more bystanders there are, the greater the likelihood is that you will receive help.
The researchers used police CCTV video footage of "conflict between at least two individuals" and analyzed whether bystanders intervened to help. The footage came from central districts Cape Town, Amsterdam, and Lancaster, providing data on cities with very different public perceptions of the likelihood and severity of violent crime.
The researchers concluded that not only did one or more people intervene in 90% of conflicts, but also that the likelihood of intervention went up with the number of bystanders present.
The researchers say that earlier work on the bystander effect focused on "responsibility diffusion" (the feeling that someone else was likely to step in so you didn't have to), but not enough of "mechanical helping potential" (the pervasive tendency to want to help). They caution that they were only able to survey conflicts in cities' central business districts, and that these conclusions don't necessarily carry over to "conflicts at music and sporting events, or sexual aggression on campuses."
Reading this paper reminded me of the introduction to Gretchen McCulloch's computational linguistics book Because Internet, where she describes the longstanding limitations of linguistic research on informal speech, because informal speech left little or no record that could be analyzed by researchers, until the internet started to generate terabytes of informal communications between peers, friends and strangers that allowed scholars to do large-scale analysis.
Here, the problematic rollout of pervasive CCTV cameras presents a similar, if smaller scale, revolution: researchers who want to know what happens in real-world conflicts in public spaces don't have to rely on the skewed data-set of police reports and the unreliable accounts of their witnesses — instead, they can review the continuous footage of major city centers around the world to establish an evidentiary basis for their research.
Would I be Helped? Cross-National CCTV Footage Shows That Intervention Is the Norm in Public Conflicts [Richard Philpot, Lasse S. Liebst, Mark Levine, Wim Bernasco and Marie R. Lindegaard/American Psychologist]
(via Four Short Links)