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We will not walk on by: South Africans will intervene...



We will not walk on by: South Africans will intervene in aggressive public disputes – study

Railway station from above. Photo: Unsplash/Timon Studler

While at times it might feel we live in a world of indifference, disconnection and alienation, a new international study, which included South Africa, has shown that bystanders will intervene in nine out of 10 incidents of public aggression and violence.

A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement and Lancaster University examined unique video recordings of 219 arguments and assaults in the inner cities of Amsterdam (Netherlands), Lancaster (UK) and Cape Town (South Africa).

The study looked at real-life conflicts captured by CCTV video recordings of 219 arguments and assaults in these inner cities. The findings, says Associate Professor Marie Rosenkrantz Lindegaard of the Netherlands Institute for Crime and Law Enforcement, “overturn the impression of the ‘walk-on-by society’ where victims are ignored by bystanders”.

Instead, the international research team of social scientists found that at least one bystander – but typically several – did something to help. And with increasing numbers of bystanders, there is a greater likelihood that at least someone will intervene to help.”

Lead author Dr Richard Philpot of Lancaster University and the University of Copenhagen, said that according to conventional wisdom “non-involvement” was the default response of bystanders during public emergencies.

Challenging this view, the current cross-national study of video data shows that intervention is the norm in actual aggressive conflicts. The fact that bystanders are much more active than we think is a positive and reassuring story for potential victims of violence and the public as a whole. We need to develop crime prevention efforts which build on the willingness of bystanders to intervene,” said Philpot.

Security cameras in the urban environments of Lancaster, Amsterdam and Cape Town captured aggressive public conflicts. In 91% of situations, bystanders watching the incident intervened in several ways including physically gesturing for an aggressor to calm down, physically blocking an aggressor or pulling an aggressor away and consoling the victim.

The research also indicated that a victim was more likely to receive help when a larger number of bystanders was present.

The most important question for the potential victim of a public assault is ‘will I receive help if needed?’ While having more people around may reduce an individual’s likelihood of helping (ie, the bystander effect), it also provides a larger pool from which help-givers may be sourced,” said Philpot.

The study, say the academics, “also found no difference in the rates of intervention between the three cities, even though inner city Cape Town is generally perceived to be less safe”.

Researchers have suggested that was is not the level of a perceived danger that set the overall rate of helping, rather “any signal” that the situation was conflictual and required intervention.

The consistent helping rate found across different national and urban contexts supports earlier research suggesting that third-party conflict resolution is a human universal, with a plausible evolutionary basis.”

In contrast to the idea that we live in a “walk-on-by society” – where people never get involved – the high levels of intervention found in this study across different national and urban contexts suggests that intervention is the norm in real-life inner-city public conflicts.

The study was supported by the Danish Council for Independent Research as awarded to project principal investigator Prof Lindegaard. DM


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