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I’m No Hero. But, Wait—There’s a Camera!

New research finds the presence of security cameras negates the famous bystander effect and encourages people to help those in need.
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Many of us are of two minds regarding security cameras: We’re concerned about the loss in privacy, even as we appreciate the role they play in reducing crime.

Newly published research suggests their presence also has another, distinctly positive effect. They apparently prompt people who are part of a crowd to engage in helpful behavior, thus weakening the famous bystander effect.

“The camera is able to increase intervention when people are otherwise least likely to help: When other bystanders are present,” reports a research team led by psychologist Marco van Bommel of VU University, Amsterdam. Their research suggests that, if they believe their heroic or helpful action will be caught on camera, people who would otherwise remain passive have a strong incentive to “intervene to be seen.”

Apparently nothing inspires your inner activist like the thought of people watching surveillance footage, and wondering who the jerk was who just stood there when he could have helped.

Van Bommel released some preliminary evidence of this effect last year in a study of online behavior, which found people who were part of a large chat group were less likely than those engaging in a one-on-one conversation to offer solace to someone in need. But if an image of their face could be seen (via a webcam), the opposite effect was found: People “were more likely to provide emotional support when many others were on the forum.”

This latest research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, consisted of an in-person experiment that replicated an experience one could easily have in real life.

One at a time, each of the 80 participants was instructed to sit down in a psychology-lab cubicle and fill out a questionnaire. They were told to drop it off at a central desk and sign a form, after which they would receive a small payment (about $2.50). As they began this process, the experimenter excused himself to use the washroom and said he'd be back in a few minutes.

A person working with the research team, who posed as a fellow participant, arrived at the main desk just before each participant. Ostensibly sensing an opportunity, he grabbed “a handful of money” from the desk and walked out of the room.

The researchers noted whether the participant attempted to intervene in any way to stop the theft. If not, the experimenter came back in just over a minute and explained that the incident was part of the study.

To measure the bystander effect, participants were randomly assigned to be either alone with the “thief,” or to have two other people in the room with them. In addition, for half of the participants, a security camera was prominently hung in the welcoming area. In addition, posters pointed out that the room was protected by camera surveillance.

When there was no camera, the bystander effect was clearly seen: Only 15 percent of participants intervened when there were others in the room, compared to 45 percent who did so when they were alone with the “thief.”

However, this effect vanished when the camera was present. The percentage of people who intervened while others were in the room rose from 15 to 45 percent.

The researchers believe these results reflect the importance we place on maintaining a good reputation. “Reputation concern can be sparked by cues that trigger accountability,” they write—cues such as the presence of a security camera.

So “the presence of bystanders does not necessarily imply inaction, as the classical bystander effect suggests,” van Bommel and his colleagues conclude. To the contrary, their research suggests that proclivity for passivity can be negated by the presence of cameras, which can inspire people to take action—even in situations “where intervention can be seen as quite heroic.”

Apparently nothing inspires your inner activist like the thought of people watching surveillance footage, and wondering who the jerk was who just stood there when he could have helped.