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New research finds the "bystander effect" can be offset by the presence of public self-awareness.

Exhibit A for the "cities are mean" thesis is the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens. Two weeks after the killing, The New York Times ran a story called "Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police," suggesting that dozens of witnesses did nothing to stop the gruesome event. Subsequent analysis cast serious doubt on the Times report, but the story remains a parable for the cruel indifference of urban life.

In 1968, inspired by the Genovese murder, psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané studied bystander behavior in the laboratory [PDF]. Test subjects who thought they were alone were more likely to respond to someone having a seizure than when they were in a group. The "bystander effect," as it's now known, has since become one of the most established ideas in modern social psychology.

The underlying factor of the bystander effect isn't necessarily a callous lack of concern for other human beings. (Unless, of course, you're George, Elaine, Jerry, or Kramer watching a fat guy get robbed.) Instead it emerges, in large part, from the decreased sense of personal responsibility that comes with being part of a big crowd. If that sense of accountability could be increased, then the effect might disappear even if the crowd remained.

Using this logic as guide, a Dutch research team says it's found a way to reverse the bystander effect. In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Marco van Bommel of VU University Amsterdam and colleagues report that victim assistance increases among a large group of bystanders when a person's self-awareness and accountability are stimulated, say, through the presence of a camera documenting their behavior. Van Bommel et al write:

People help less when there are bystanders present, but when they become public self-aware (by our camera manipulation), the presence of other bystanders leads them to increase helping behavior. … This indicates that the feeling of public self-awareness, as created by the presence of a camera, was sufficient for participants to change their behavior in accord with a pattern that signifies reputation concerns.

To observe their theory in action the researchers invented a fake online forum for people with severe emotional distress. They brought people into a laboratory and had them read five messages posted to the forum. The messages described troubling personal stories, from someone contemplating suicide to someone going through a very bad break-up. The researchers recorded which test subjects responded to the messages, and which didn't.

While studying the interactions in this forum, Van Bommel and colleagues found plenty of evidence for the classic bystander effect. In one test situation, people responded to the distressed messages at a lower rate when they thought there were 30 other people online in the forum — essentially bystanders — than when there were only a couple.

But the researchers were able to flip this effect by making test subjects more self-aware. In another test situation, forum participants saw their name in red on the screen among the 30 or so other forum participants, whose names were in black. That was enough to make them feel as if they stood out in the crowd, and the bystander effect was reversed: these subjects responded to crisis messages more than those who were in the forum without many bystanders.

A follow-up study with a video camera confirmed the influence of self-awareness on bystander behavior. This time, instead of seeing a name in red, test subjects thought they were being watched by a webcam as they navigated the forum. Even this mere feeling of accountability led subjects in a big group to respond to distress messages more often than those without many bystanders.

The researchers consider their tests "among the first to repeatedly demonstrate a reversal of the bystander effect." But what's happening here isn't some magnanimous injection of altruism. If that were the case, then every test subject whose self-awareness increased should have shown more victim assistance. Instead those in the big group of bystanders helped out much more than people who read the distress messages alone.

What's happening, Van Bommel and company suggest, is that people whose self-awareness is aroused in big groups fear they'll be held accountable for their behavior by the other bystanders. As a result they alter their response to account for what others might think. In short, when our reputation is on the line, the cost of inaction increases enough to get us involved.

Of course, responding to forum messages in a controlled lab is hardly the same as intervening in a violent crime. At the same time, the research suggests that cities might get some secondary benefit from the crime cameras that are now being installed around the country at an incredible pace. That people might assist others in need to save their own reputation, rather than out of the goodness of their hearts, isn't the most uplifting discovery. But if the goal is to increase helping, regardless of whether or not we also improve human nature, then it's a potentially useful one.

Top image: Kodda/Shutterstock.com

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