The video shows an older man on a New York City subway platform, struggling against a gush of filthy water that has forced him to the ground. Finally, he makes it to his knees and looks directly at the camera, as if in accusation: Why didn’t you help me?
After the clip went viral, people on Twitter wondered the same thing. “Drop the phone and help that man?” one person asked. “We are so much better at documenting the things we might have helped out with instead,” another said. It’s a familiar indictment of the social media age: We’d all rather record a clip for likes than actually do some good in the world. But the knee-jerk reactions to this clip — and plenty like it — may actually have things wrong. (Not for nothing, the clip itself also ends with someone walking toward the man; it’s possible he was ultimately helped.) Research shows the presence of cameras makes people more likely to intervene when they see someone in danger — not less.
It’s easy to see where the negative assumptions about uncaring “bystanders” comes from. Most people probably think of Kitty Genovese, a young New Yorker who, in 1964, was stalked, stabbed, and murdered outside her Queens apartment building while (supposedly) 38 people watched. The myth around the Genovese case is that none of these witnesses helped, and it’s from this story that the concept of the bystander effect — which suggests people are less likely to help someone if they’re around other people — was launched into the collective consciousness.
But that isn’t what actually happened. While initial reports said Genovese was attacked three times before her eventual death, the real number of attacks was two. And there weren’t 38 witnesses who stood idly by. In reality, there were probably more like 12 people who heard suspicious noises, according to a New York Times obituary of the murderer. Nor did they all stand by and do nothing — two people called the police, and one elderly woman held Genovese as she lay dying.
So, yes, there were people who were likely aware of the attack on Genovese and chose, for whatever reason, not to intervene. But there were also people who did do something to help. (If you want to learn more about the Kitty Genovese story and ensuing myths, I highly recommend this Inverse article about its impact on science, and an episode of the excellent podcast You’re Wrong About that delves into the story.)
This isn’t to say that the bystander effect doesn’t exist — it’s just more complicated than some of the original thought made it out to be. A 2011 meta-review of research on bystander effect found that people are more likely to intervene when a situation is clearly an emergency — such as when someone has fallen to the ground and cried out after being robbed — in part because in such a situation, it’s clear beyond a doubt that someone actually needs help. In most situations, men are more likely to assist than women, primarily because men feel more physically capable of making a difference. And acquaintances are more likely to step in than strangers.
But when you factor in cameras and phones, things get even more interesting.
Linus Andersson is a lecturer in media and communication studies at Halmstad University in Sweden, who with his colleague Ebba Sundin is in the process of securing funding to research why people film instead of help. Though Andersson has no concrete answers on why this might be the case, he has some ideas.
Filming gives people agency when they might otherwise feel unable, or unwilling, to step in and lend a hand.
Filming, he says, “seems to be a very immediate way to come to grips with [an event]. It gives you the sense of doing something — instead of just being passive, you become some kind of active witness.” Filming gives people agency when they might otherwise feel unable, or unwilling, to step in and lend a hand.
And while there isn’t a lot of existing research on why people feel the urge to film a crisis with their phones, there is some literature suggesting that people are more likely to help when a camera is present. Marco van Bommel, an assistant professor of organizational psychology at the Open University in the Netherlands, has conducted research on how the presence of cameras affects bystanders. In one study, from 2013, he and his fellow researchers created two situations: one in which someone stole money from another person in the presence of bystanders and another in which someone stole money from another person in the presence of both bystanders and a security camera. People were more likely to help when there was a camera present, the study found.
Van Bommel conducted similar research looking at online interactions, and found that when users had a webcam on them or felt like they were being watched or observed in some other way, they were more likely to provide needed support than if they didn’t feel they were being observed.
A more recent study backs up van Bommel’s findings. The researchers reviewed security camera footage of 219 violent situations in the U.K., the Netherlands, and South Africa, and found that, in 90% of cases, at least one person attempted to intervene. The study’s most surprising finding was that the more people were present at the event, the more likely it was that someone would step in. That directly contradicts the traditional theory of bystander intervention, in which people are less likely to help in a crowd.
Van Bommel says that he and his researchers speculate that, generally, people will be more likely to help in situations in which they feel like they’re being watched. “Sometimes there is something in the direct environment that helps them feel responsible again,” he says. These are called “accountability cues,” and van Bommel says they can be cameras, nametags, mirrors, or any other condition in which a person feels watched or reminded of their power and responsibility. “We think that when people are feeling accountable, they suddenly think more about their reputation and how it will look when they perform a certain action or fail to act at all,” he says. “To me, it seems likely that the camera on a smartphone can function as an accountability cue.”
People will be more likely to help in situations in which they feel like they’re being watched.
In other words, if a security camera or a webcam will make a bystander more willing to hop into a situation and lend a hand, the same theory likely applies to smartphone cameras, as well.
Which brings us back to a lingering question about the man nearly swept away in the subway station: Why did the bystander whip out their phone to record a video rather than wade into the water to help the victim? No direct research has been conducted on why people decide to document accidents and crimes rather than intervene, but there are a couple of good theories.
“I have had some conversations about this, where people indicated they felt filming was important for basically eyewitness purposes, i.e. helping the police with tracking down a criminal,” says van Bommel. “This may sound bad, but there is also another component to this: People who experience something bad may feel stressed, shocked, etc., and they need to relieve this by sharing their feelings and experiences with their friends.”
Van Bommel points out that, unless you were actually in the situation, it’s difficult to accurately judge how you would respond. If for whatever reason you’re not sure that the man in the water needed your help — though judging from the video, it appears that he did — research suggests you’d be considerably less likely to offer.
Further, if you don’t feel physically capable of helping — if you’re small, or a woman, or otherwise doubt your physical capabilities — you’re not going to feel comfortable enough wading into swiftly moving water on a subway platform to help someone. You might feel that you’re of more value on the sidelines, documenting the event so people have proof that the subway station is in a dangerous state of disrepair.
There is one situation for which we have evidence that a phone is a hindrance, not a help, and that’s when the bystander is having a phone conversation. A 2013 study found that people were less likely to assist a subject wearing a leg brace who had dropped a stack of magazines if the bystander was on the phone. The study authors suggest that this could be because talking on your phone fulfills the need to belong, because you’re already engaged — and, thus, feeling a sense of belonging — to the person you’re talking with.
It stands to reason that more research needs to be done on how the presence of a phone affects bystander behavior. If the presence of cameras — which most phones now have, not to mention the oppressive ubiquity of security cameras — encourages bystander intervention, but talking on the phone decreases the likelihood that you’ll help someone, where are we left? It’s hard to say, but we’re probably not as “heartless” as pessimists would have us believe.