The hero in martial arts movies usually steps in when a passive victim is picked on by a gang of thugs. However a new study finds that in real life, third parties are most likely to intervene in conflict situations when the incident involves mutual aggression between drunk men.
Michael Parks and his colleagues trained dozens of observers who analysed 860 aggressive incidents across 503 nights in 87 large clubs and bars in Toronto, Canada. Aggression was defined as anything from a verbal insult or unwanted physical contact to a punch or kick. Incidents were twice as likely to involve one-sided aggression as opposed to mutual aggression. The most common incident involved a man making persistent unwanted overtures or physical contact towards a female. Male on male aggression was the next most frequent category. All-female aggression was rare.
Third parties intervened in almost one third of these situations, and they were more than twice as likely to intervene in a non-aggressive way than to be aggressive themselves. Eighty per cent of third parties who got involved were men. Drunk third parties were more likely to be aggressive. Surprisingly perhaps, the most frequent kind of aggressive incident (male on female) was the least likely to provoke third party involvement. One-sided aggression between men also provoked few interventions. Parks and his team think this is probably because such incidents are judged to be non-serious and unlikely to escalate.
This was borne out by data for how the situations unfolded. Serious physical harm and intense aggression rarely arose from one-sided aggression of any kind, including male on female. Serious harm and escalation most often arose out of mutual aggression between men – the situation that provoked the highest rate of third-party involvement, all the more so if the men involved were intoxicated.
Taken together, Parks and his team believe their data show that third parties decide to intervene based on their assessment of the dangerousness of the situation. This fits with social psychology research showing that bystanders intervene more often in emergency situations that they perceive to be more dangerous. An alternative or parallel explanation is that third parties were influenced to intervene based on cultural rules around honour and saving face.
Parks and his team said their results could have practical applications. “Staff training can include awareness of the kinds of situations most likely to elicit aggressive third parties and how to work as a team to prevent their involvement,” they said. “Staff could also be trained to harness the good intentions of non-aggressive third parties.”
The great strength of this research was that it was based on real-life observations. A downside, acknowledged by the researchers, is that we don’t have any direct evidence for the motives of the people who intervened.
Parks MJ, Osgood DW, Felson RB, Wells S, and Graham K (2013). Third party involvement in barroom conflicts. Aggressive behavior, 39 (4), 257-68 PMID: 23494773