Turning a blind eye


26 January 2011

What would happen if a crowd of innocent bystanders saw a drunken youth picking on a elderly man?

Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary, described Britain in 1999 as a 'walk-on-by' society. He lamented the failure of people to recognise their responsibility to intervene in emergencies. Both Prime Minister David Cameron and the current Home Secretary Dominic Grieve have made speeches on the rise of the 'walk-on-by' society, and the willingness of others to intervene lies at the heart of the Big Society.

In speaking out, politicians are tapping into an anxiety that has a long history. The rise of the modern city in the late 19th century, and the resultant society of strangers, led to worries about the breakdown of bonds of responsibility between citizens. There is much psychological research that seems to show that the presence of others - particularly strangers - can make people less likely to help. This phenomenon is known as the bystander effect - the idea that the presence of others in an emergency can lead to diffusion of responsibility or audience inhibition.

Recent ESRC-funded work by Dr Mark Levine of Lancaster University has begun to challenge some of the assumptions of the bystander effect. Rather than seeing the presence of others as the problem, it has tried to explore the conditions under which the power of the group can promote intervention, by looking at real-life violent incidents captured on CCTV from around Britain.

The research examines one of the key concerns facing contemporary Britain - anxiety about the rise of violence and anti-social behaviour at night. Politicians and the public complain that excessive alcohol consumption and the presence of young people has led to an epidemic of violent public behaviour. So researchers conducted a systematic behavioural analysis of 42 aggressive incidents captured on CCTV, some of which ended in violence, some of which did not.

Analysis revealed that, contrary to popular belief, third parties were very likely to intervene in aggressive incidents. More importantly, they were far more likely to intervene to de-escalate or control violence than they were to escalate it. This increased as the group size of the bystanders increased. Moreover, attempts to stop violence from breaking out were most likely to be successful when a number of bystanders acted together – rather than when one bystander attempted de-escalation on their own.

Such findings turn the conventional wisdom about the problems of anti-social behaviour and violence on its head. Violence tends to happen when groups of bystanders fail to control violent perpetrators, rather than as the result of an unwillingness to intervene. To create practical intervention strategies to stop violence, more needs to be learnt about how groups try to control anti-social behaviour, and what makes them successful, rather than why people fail to intervene.

From the ESRC magazine Britain in 2011