Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


button-security-camera

You're being watched. (PHOTO: ALICE-PHOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

I’m No Hero. But, Wait—There’s a Camera!

• October 17, 2013 • 4:00 AM

You're being watched. (PHOTO: ALICE-PHOTO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds the presence of security cameras negates the famous bystander effect and encourages people to help those in need.

Many of us are of two minds regarding security cameras: We’re concerned about the loss in privacy, even as we appreciate the role they play in reducing crime.

Newly published research suggests their presence also has another, distinctly positive effect. They apparently prompt people who are part of a crowd to engage in helpful behavior, thus weakening the famous bystander effect.

“The camera is able to increase intervention when people are otherwise least likely to help: When other bystanders are present,” reports a research team led by psychologist Marco van Bommel of VU University, Amsterdam. Their research suggests that, if they believe their heroic or helpful action will be caught on camera, people who would otherwise remain passive have a strong incentive to “intervene to be seen.”

Apparently nothing inspires your inner activist like the thought of people watching surveillance footage, and wondering who the jerk was who just stood there when he could have helped.

Van Bommel released some preliminary evidence of this effect last year in a study of online behavior, which found people who were part of a large chat group were less likely than those engaging in a one-on-one conversation to offer solace to someone in need. But if an image of their face could be seen (via a webcam), the opposite effect was found: People “were more likely to provide emotional support when many others were on the forum.”

This latest research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, consisted of an in-person experiment that replicated an experience one could easily have in real life.

One at a time, each of the 80 participants was instructed to sit down in a psychology-lab cubicle and fill out a questionnaire. They were told to drop it off at a central desk and sign a form, after which they would receive a small payment (about $2.50). As they began this process, the experimenter excused himself to use the washroom and said he’d be back in a few minutes.

A person working with the research team, who posed as a fellow participant, arrived at the main desk just before each participant. Ostensibly sensing an opportunity, he grabbed “a handful of money” from the desk and walked out of the room.

The researchers noted whether the participant attempted to intervene in any way to stop the theft. If not, the experimenter came back in just over a minute and explained that the incident was part of the study.

To measure the bystander effect, participants were randomly assigned to be either alone with the “thief,” or to have two other people in the room with them. In addition, for half of the participants, a security camera was prominently hung in the welcoming area. In addition, posters pointed out that the room was protected by camera surveillance.

When there was no camera, the bystander effect was clearly seen: Only 15 percent of participants intervened when there were others in the room, compared to 45 percent who did so when they were alone with the “thief.”

However, this effect vanished when the camera was present. The percentage of people who intervened while others were in the room rose from 15 to 45 percent.

The researchers believe these results reflect the importance we place on maintaining a good reputation. “Reputation concern can be sparked by cues that trigger accountability,” they write—cues such as the presence of a security camera.

So “the presence of bystanders does not necessarily imply inaction, as the classical bystander effect suggests,” van Bommel and his colleagues conclude. To the contrary, their research suggests that proclivity for passivity can be negated by the presence of cameras, which can inspire people to take action—even in situations “where intervention can be seen as quite heroic.”

Apparently nothing inspires your inner activist like the thought of people watching surveillance footage, and wondering who the jerk was who just stood there when he could have helped.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.