You see a shopper trip over in a busy street. Someone else can help. That’s what you tell your conscience. This is the Bystander Effect in action – the dilution of our sense of responsibility in the presence of other people – and it’s been demonstrated in numerous studies over many years.
But life is complicated and psychologists have begun looking at the circumstances that can nullify or even reverse the effect. For a new paper, Marco van Bommel and his team tested the idea that the presence of others could in fact increase our proclivity for helping if we’re nudged into a self-aware mindset and thereby reminded of our social reputation.
Two experiments were conducted using an online chat room for people with extreme emotional problems. Eighty-six students were logged into the forum and shown five messages posted by troubled forum users – for example, one was written by a person who wanted to commit suicide. The participants were told they could write a reply if they wanted, but it was entirely up to them.
In the baseline condition, each participant could see his or her name in the top left-hand side of the screen alongside other users’ names. A counter also told them if the forum was quiet, with just one other person logged-in, or if it was busy, with 30 others online.
This basic arrangement replicated the classic Bystander Effect – participants were less likely to post replies when there were more people logged into the forum. However, when the researchers cued self-awareness by highlighting the participant’s name in red on the screen, the Bystander Effect was reversed – they now posted more replies when the forum was busy compared with when it was quiet.
A second study built on these findings, but this time self-awareness was cued by the presence, or not, of a web-cam on the computer. Over one hundred participants took part. For those in the web-cam condition, their attention was drawn to the device by having them check that its LED indicator light was on, although they were told that the camera wouldn’t be used until a later task. In the absence of a web-cam, the Bystander Effect was again replicated – participants on a busy forum, compared to a quiet forum, posted fewer replies to users in need. By contrast, participants cued to be self-aware by the presence of a web-cam actually wrote more replies when the forum was busy, compared with when it was quiet.
“The Bystander Effect can be reversed by means of cues that raise public self-awareness in social settings,” the researchers said.
van Bommel and his team acknowledged the limitations of using an online arrangement for testing their ideas, but they also defended its relevance to modern life, in which our social activities are increasingly taking place online. Their results also have interesting implications for the debate around the proliferation of security cameras in public places. “While certain forms of self-awareness may not always be welcomed by people, the present findings do underscore their power to promote helping one another,” the researchers said.
Marco van Bommel, Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Henk Elffers, and Paul A.M. Van Langea (2012). Be aware to care: Public self-awareness leads to a reversal of the bystander effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.011