Football fans recruited to test the bystander effect
Football fans have taken part in an experiment to test one of the most challenging areas in behavioural psychology. Called the bystander effect, it is based on the belief that the greater the size of bystanders to an emergency situation, the less chance of anyone intervening to help a person in distress.
The term was first identified in the 1960s, but conducting research in this area has proved challenging over the years. Most experiments rely upon staging fake emergencies or violent encounters using actors; these prove unreliable in gauging how genuine a response is.
But Dr Southern and his colleagues from Bournemouth University in the UK, have gone some way in overcoming this issue by devising experiments using a 3D computer animation technology. The results were recently published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.
Dr Southern says: 'We realised that to conduct experiments we had to recreate reality as best we could. With virtual reality, if you can trick people into believing they are in a place and the responses that occur around them in that environment are believable, then people will respond in a realistic way.'
To create their virtual world, Dr Southern and Professor Zhang used a system based at University College London (UCL) called 'ReaCToR'. They used stereo images, which were then projected onto the walls and floor of a room using high-resolution digital projectors. A person then steps into the room wearing lightweight shutter glasses similar to those used on modern 3D TVs, producing a realistic 3D sports bar scene. Head-tracking technology ensures they see the image from the right perspective while an eight-speaker system delivers directional sound.
In a series of experiments conducted with colleagues at UCL and Lancaster University, the team recruited 40 Arsenal FC fans and asked them to enter the ReaCToR to look out for football memorabilia. Once inside, the participants were met with a confrontation between two men.
Dr Southern explains what happened next: 'We used different scenarios to see if we could see what factors can impede whether someone will intervene when the confrontation starts. We varied whether the victim in the confrontation was a supporter of Arsenal and wore an Arsenal jersey or showed little interest in the team and wore a generic red shirt. The participants intervene significantly more if they are of the same group affiliation as the victim.'
Other experiments were also conducted, with researchers programming the virtual victim to look directly at the participant during the confrontation to plead for help. In this case the participants tended to feel more concerned about the victim's safety and their intervention tended to be verbal rather than physical, implying a higher level of engagement. The researchers also filled the bar with other virtual characters that reacted differently to the confrontation. In one case a man watching the struggle simply shrugs when the participant looks at him. The virtual bystanders also shout out to either encourage the participant to intervene or to discourage him.
Dr Southern believes that this research could go far beyond telling us more about the frailties of the human mind. It could also attract attention from the police and the Ministry of Defence to help train their personnel in diffusing confrontational situations. It has also been suggested that this technology could be used to help evaluate a prisoner's likelihood of violent re-offending. A pilot study has already yielded promising results.
Dr Southern concludes: 'This is an enabling technology. It paves the way towards using immersive scenarios for all kinds of uses.'
Data Source Provider: Public Library of Science (PLoS) One
Document Reference: Based on information from the Public Library of Science (PLoS) One
Subject Index: Coordination, Cooperation; Innovation, Technology Transfer