For fifty years, psychologists have assumed a bystander effect: in an emergency situation the crowd looks, but nobody intervenes. The higher the number of bystanders, the more anonymous we feel and the smaller the chance that somebody intervenes. 'But that is not at all what we found', says cultural anthropologist Marie Rosenkrantz Lindegaard, who led a large international study into the subject. 'On the contrary, we continually see bystanders who take action and intervene. This is a highly radical discovery and a completely different outcome than theory predicts.'
Lindegaard and her team studied a total of 219 disputes recorded by security cameras. In almost every single case, bystanders intervened to calm the situation. They separated fighting people, stood in between troublemakers or tried to make the troublemakers walk away. And the more bystanders, the higher the chance of intervention – especially in large groups there is always somebody who intervenes. Only in the case of arguments between couples and a single instance where a thief was beaten up did bystanders fail to intervene or intervened too late. 'Apparently, people experience arguments between couples as a personal matter that does not require intervention', says Lindegaard. Also, in the case of fights between women, bystanders do not take action as quickly. 'Perhaps we see them as less dangerous.' The outcomes of the research certainly have consequences for what happens in practice: 'If the perspective shifts from the absence of help to its almost universal presence, then we can move away from the question "why doesn't anybody help?" and instead consider a new research question: "what makes an intervention successful"?'
This study is the first large-scale test of the bystander effect in real-life. Up until now, this effect was mainly studied in the lab by asking study subjects how they would respond in a particular situation. Another striking aspect of this study is that the observations come from three different countries including the violent country of South Africa where intervening in a street dispute is not without risk. 'That appears to indicate that this is a universal phenomenon', says this Lindegaard. 'I hesitate to refer to it as altruism, but apparently we are prepared to take a risk to safeguard the moral order.' Nevertheless, peacemakers do draw a line according to a follow-up study that Lindegaard is working on: in the case of armed robberies, bystanders intervene far less.
This article is an edited version of an interview with Marie Rosenkrantz Lindegaard and Peter Ejbye-Ernst in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant.