Menus Subscribe Search
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

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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