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Bystanders become good samaritans when the stakes are high


A person is in trouble in a crowded place, but no-one steps over to help. The situation is called the bystander effect, and it appears that the more people watching, the less likely it is that anyone will respond.

But new research shows that even when accompanied by another person, individuals are much more likely to intervene if the situation is dangerous or violent, and when they feel empathy for the victim. The findings are published in the latest edition of the European Journal of Social Psychology.

To study this, researchers at Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich, Germany, recruited 54 women and 32 men and told them that they were going to monitor the interaction between a man and a woman who had never met. In fact, these two people were actors, and the after a few minutes the interaction became violent. The researchers were interested in seeing how long it took before the observer sought to break up the fight. They varied the degree of apparent danger by altering the relative sizes of the male and female actor. In some experiments a second observer, who had been instructed not to respond to the situation, accompanied the recruits.

In situations of low danger, 50% of observers tried to help the victim if they were watching alone, but this dropped to 6% when a bystander was present.

In situations of high danger, 44% of observers tried to help when alone, but in this situation so did 40% of those accompanied by a bystander.

"The classical bystander-effect was replicated when the situation involved low potential danger, but not when the situation involved high potential danger," says lead author Dr Peter Fischer. "The good news is that when people are in real trouble, they have a good chance of receiving help, even when more than one bystander is present."

Amy Molnar | EurekAlert!
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