Humans may be better than we think. The widespread belief that strangers, particularly in cities, will not support someone on the receiving end of violence or verbal abuse has been contradicted by a substantial study that reveals in nine out of 10 instances, bystanders will intervene to help victims. The findings don't just restore a little bit of faith in humanity, they may also encourage better behavior in the future.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered outside her apartment building while a number of New Yorkers (reported at the time 38, but later proven to be exaggerated) heard her screams. Their alleged failure to act created, or at least re-enforced, a belief that big cities are an urban jungle where victims of violence will get no support. Her murder led to the term coined by psychologists as the "Bystander Effect", and the adoption of the 911 emergency service system in the US. The truth of this belief has been questioned over time, but it's a hard thing to test scientifically, and there have been enough subsequent anecdotal accounts to maintain the perception.
"According to conventional wisdom, non-involvement is the default response of bystanders during public emergencies,” Dr Ricahrd Philpot of Lancaster University said in a statement. Philpot realized the spread of CCTV cameras through urban areas, particularly in places considered to be hotspots of crime, provided an opportunity to get some real statistics.
Philpot collected extensive footage from cameras in Amsterdam, Lancaster, and Cape Town and searched them for assaults and cases of visible aggression that looked like they might turn violent. He found 219 examples and looked at the actions of those he refers to as bystanders. In the journal American Psychologist, he reports that in 91 percent of cases at least one person present did not, in fact, stand by. Instead one, and often more, people intervened either by physically attempting to prevent the violence, gesturing to the aggressor to calm down, or consoling the victim.
It's possible that even in some of the remaining 9 percent of cases a stranger tried to defuse the situation verbally or called for help, but the lack of audio means we will never know. Busting another myth, the more people were present, the more likely it was that at least one person would step in, rather than everyone leaving the job to someone else.
“While having more people around may reduce an individual's likelihood of helping (ie, the bystander effect), it also provides a larger pool from which help-givers may be sourced," Dr Philpot said.
Despite the perception of Cape Town as a city riddled with violence as a result of its vast disparities of wealth, intervention rates were identical across the three cities.
Philpot thinks the finding could be the basis for developing crime-fighting strategies that make use of people's willingness to engage. Simply raising awareness of Philpot's statistics might encourage even more people to do the right thing once they realize taking action is the norm. Abusers may also think twice before attacking if they expect their victim will not stand alone.