Surveillance Cameras Reverse The 'Bystander Effect'

surveillance cameras

Photo: jonathan mcintosh on Flickr

Surveillance cameras may not necessarily deter crime, but they do influence how we respond to people in distress.  New research from VU University Amsterdam shows that when there are cameras around, people are more likely to assist strangers in need of help, reports The Atlantic Cities’ Eric Jaffe.

The report seeks to reverse the “bystander effect,” where people are more likely to ignore needy individuals when others are around because they feel they can defer responsibility.

For the study, Marco Van Bommel and his team created a fake online support forum where subjects were asked to respond to posts about severe emotional distress. When the participants thought they were being watched by a webcam, they were significantly more likely to offer support to the post than when they were not.

The study, which purports to be the first to consistently show a reversal in the bystander effect, comes in the wake of global reports from San Francisco to London that installing surveillance cameras in urban areas does not decrease crime.

However, this new research could inspire city officials across the globe to continue to pursue camera placement.

The reasoning behind the results is that when we think we are being watched, we are sensitive to our own reputation and society’s perception of us.

According to the study: 

We suggest that the psychological processes triggered by reputation concerns in the present studies are likely to be different from the effects of increasing personal responsibility directly (e.g., Moriarty, 1975), or behaviours following an “altruistic” norm (which are more related to private self-awareness, see Prentice-dunn & Rogers, 1982). If accountability cues accentuated such an “altruistic” norm, or if they raised feelings of responsibility towards the needy, there should have been an increase in helping behaviour in the alone, public self-aware condition. Given that we only find increased helping in the presence of an audience, the data indicate a mechanism not based on accepting responsibility or altruism for the person in need, but one based on salience of the possibility that one is held accountable for one’s behaviour, by other bystanders. Therefore, our findings are most consistent with a model that stipulates that people who are aware of the reputational costs and rewards of their behaviour become motivated by concerns of what others may think.

So we might not want to help others for “altruistic” reasons, but at least cameras get people to do something.

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