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Page last updated at 08:42 GMT, Tuesday, 29 June 2010 09:42 UK

Fight or flight - would you 'have a go'?

Man intervening in a fight
Calling into question the bystander effect - the man on the left is intervening

By Brian King

How would you react if you saw someone being attacked in the street? Britain has been called a "bystander society" but new research shows we are more likely to intervene than expected.

According to the New York Times, more than three dozen people watched as 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in a brutal and prolonged attack outside her New York apartment. Not one of them lifted a finger to help or even called the police.

Kitty Genovese
Genovese (above) stabbed to death near her home in New York City in March 1964
Initial newspaper report said 38 people had heard/seen parts of the attack
This was later scaled back and none saw/were aware of entire incident
It nevertheless prompted investigation of what came to be known as bystander effect

The shocking murder, back in 1964, prompted more than four decades of psychological studies into how witnesses behave when confronted by violence in the street. The studies all identified a "bystander effect", which predicts that the larger the group of people who observe a violent incident, the less likely it is anyone will take action.

The bystander effect would seem to have been at work in August 2007 when passers-by in a Lancashire park failed to intervene when they saw two youths kick to death 20-year-old gap-year student Sophie Lancaster. Her killers stamped on her head because she was dressed as a Goth.

Evolutionary biology suggests that our natural genetic instinct is to behave in an altruistic and supportive way if someone is being attacked. So why do people seem to walk by, particularly if they are in a crowd?

Group kinship

Psychologists suggest three reasons. One is "audience inhibition", which makes us fear that taking action will be viewed negatively by the other people. The second is "social influence", which leads us to assume that if no-one else is helping, there is no need to do anything. And the third, most important, reason is "diffusion of responsibility", which encourages us to take the view that if no-one else is doing anything then why should we.

The more obvious possibility, that people are simply too frightened to intervene, is discounted by psychologists. They point out that if this were true people would be less likely to "have a go" if they were alone, whereas the opposite is the case.

Sefryn Penrose
What are people thinking when they step in to help someone and would they do it again?

Sefryn Penrose, 32, was in Clacton, Essex, when she tried to stop a man attacking a woman who'd cut him up in his car.

"What shocked me was that he was over six foot tall and she was tiny. He was holding her and just punching her head.

I didn't think, l just ran over and tried to push him off. I got hit and my earring was ripped out. My partner shouted at someone to call the police and he jumped into his car and drove off.

It was the injustice that got me. I remember feeling completely outraged that this huge man was doing that to a tiny woman. He also had a small child with him and I was angry that he was letting a child see what he was doing.

I just felt a huge adrenalin rush, I didn't think for a second that I shouldn't do it. I still think I did the right thing, even though I got hurt. I would always step in to help and think people who don't are usually just in a state of shock."

Former government crime adviser Louise Casey warned back in June 2008 that Britain was becoming a "walk-on-by" society. She based her conclusion on a major study which revealed that people were terrified they would be attacked if they intervened, or feared they would be arrested by the police themselves.

And in May this year the new Home Secretary, Theresa May, joined the chorus of people calling for the public to "have a go" if they witness violence on the street, promising legislation to protect "good Samaritans" from falling foul of the law themselves.

But new studies are now casting doubt on the assumption that the British are a "walk-on-by" society. Psychologist Mark Levine, from Lancaster University, has been studying thousands of hours of CCTV footage of late night violent incidents (including the one at the top of this page) . He has discovered that in the great majority of cases people do step in and try to defuse violent situations.

"It's like choreography," he says. "It's as if they are following some sort of sequence. You can see how determined people are to fight and how much intervention there is by bystanders."

What marks his research out is that it is based on real violence, whereas previous studies have involved analysis of statistics and clinical experiments. What he found is that people within a group generally try to defuse violence, by making placatory gestures, such as putting an arm around the aggressor's shoulder, or getting between combatants or pulling them away.

Virtual reality

"What is not often thought about this kind of event... is that the group who are out there can be a force for good. We normally think people are drinking... and therefore are much more likely to be prone to violence. Our research shows that in fact this doesn't tend to be the case. People are much more likely to be trying to stop the violence happening rather than joining in to escalate it."

He doesn't believe Britain has ever been a "walk-on-by" society.

He has studied court transcripts of the trials of the killers of Kitty Genovese and Sophie Lancaster and says both incidents were massively misreported. Press reports assumed that "witnesses" who may simply have been in the general area, heard a distant commotion or perhaps saw someone running away, were actually eye-witnesses to the murders. In fact there were no eye-witnesses to the actual killings in either case.

Walk On By , presented by Nick Ross and produced by Brian King, explores how onlookers respond when they see violent behaviour
Or listen to it on the iPlayer later

The research goes against most other studies that have been done into the topic. He is now working with Professor Mel Slater, a computer scientist at University College London, to test public response to violent incidents, using virtual reality.

Volunteers are confronted by life-size avatars who act out a frighteningly realistic violent confrontation. And again, early results suggest that more often than not people feel compelled to intervene.

"Most of us are good Samaritans trying to prevent violence," says Mr Levine. "When violence does happen it is the result of a failure of those norms of control, rather than something that people simply like to do."

People are much more likely to intervene if they feel some sort of group kinship with the victim, he also concludes. The problem is that in an increasingly fragmented modern society, people feel less and less part of the same social group.

"I think we could use the force of the group much more," he says. "Why is it that those people get involved and take responsibility? How can we make wider society take responsibility for the behaviour of those among them who are behaving in an anti-social way?"

Below is a selection of your comments.

I once walked past something in which I should have intervened and I still feel bad about it now, 15 years on. Like all the others who did exactly the same, I wonder now if being physically hurt could possibly have felt worse than all these years' of guilt? I like to hope I wouldn't do it again, but I can't be sure.
SL, London

I was a witness to a husband/wife shooting at a hospital while my mother was recuperating from surgery. I was one of only a few persons who actually helped the shooting victim (I was the one who stopped the bleeding caused by the bullet grazing an artery in her arm) while others ran for cover. Not that they were scared , but I believe that they had a different instinct and acted on that feeling. I jumped head on into the shooting area and did this without any forethought of what was or could actually occur...all I saw was a helpless woman bleeding profusely from a gun shot. I stripped my shirt off and used it as a tourniquet (on a rather chilly day I might add) to slow the bleeding until help arrived from the ER department. I have also been party to helping a fellow school student when he had an epileptic seizure during class, which helped save his life from choking. I feel no need for long THANKS or gratitude other than to help someone who needs it.
Doug Chapman, Fort Worth, TX US

I am a 5-foot nothing lady and witnessed a man being beaten up by two others. I didn't physically intervene as I knew that I wouldn't really be able to help much, but I yelled for help and others came running. In fact it was the act of calling for help that made the attackers flee. I couldn't just stand there and do nothing.
Amy, London

Like first aid or lifesaving - other occasions when intervention can be necessary unexpectedly - your action should, when possible, be such that you do not place yourself at risk. Just as jumping into water to save a drowning person is a last resort, so is intervening in a brawl physically... my first resort is to shout (admittedly I have a very loud and penetrating voice when I wish to make a noise) which, combined with a good choice of WHAT I shout, has stopped more than one fight.
Megan, Cheshire UK

It's a difficult situation when someone is a victim of what appears to be mindless violence. I myself have intervened in a situation where a group of teenagers walked through a pub, where I was having a quiet drink with a friend, walked straight up to another teenager threw him to the floor and started kicking him in the head. At first I was shocked by what I was seeing, but once I realised what was happening I ran into the group and pulled the main attacker. Thinking about it afterwards I could have actually got involved in a fight and seriously injured someone or myself, then I would have to give account of my actions to the Police or at worst ended up in hospital. Would I do something like this again? It would depend on the circumstances of what is happening and who is the victim.
Darren Ambrose, Stotfold, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom

Three years ago whilst walking the dog I came across a vicious assault in the street.. I intervened and the attack turned his attention on me. With twelve years of boxing training I easily subdued him (For the record I hit him twice). End result.. Original victim hospitalised with multiple superficial injuries and a fractured skull... The attacker with a single injury of a broken cheekbone.. and me, charged with GBH and three very worrying months for my family until charges were eventually dropped. Will I walk on by next time? who knows.
Ed Johnson, Doncaster

"Volunteers are confronted by life-size avatars who act out a frighteningly realistic violent confrontation. And again, early results suggest that more often than not people feel compelled to intervene." What nonsense. There are no possible negative physical consequences to intervening with a "violent" avatar, and any results from those test should be completely disregarded. Spend some time out in the city centres on Saturday nights and get some real evidence. Spend some time on "ride alongs" with the police and get some real evidence. Speak to people who have been assaulted by the one getting attacked when they've tried to intervene in a "domestic" and get some real evidence.
Ian, Cardiff

I have intervened more times than I care to remember with my earliest memory being at school. I intervened once when I was about 15/16. A boy was being attacked on a station walkway, he was only 11 or 12. Commuters were just walking past, they could all see him and yet I was the only one to stop. My actions resulted in the boy getting away and I was pinned to the wall by my throat. Would I have walked on by if I had know what was going to happen to me? Never.
Jemma, Leeds, West Yorkshire

I was on a train a couple of years ago in London after a football match when I heard a group of men in the same carriage singing anti-Semetic and generally vile songs. They were swearing, being unpleasant. Not violent exactly, but still deeply unsettling to see and hear. I loudly told them that I thought their behaviour was unpleasant inappropriate for public transport. They got worse, and started to turn on me. Now, I realise later that it probably wasn't the wisest thing to do but what bothered me was that the only person willing to do something was a petite 19-year-old woman. Not one other person on the train backed me up, told them to stop when they started jeering at me, threatening to follow me etc when I got off and that train was full. Four years later, I hope the other passengers are ashamed of themselves. I strongly believe that intervening is often a gut instinct. It wasn't pleasant, but I'd do it again without thinking if I felt strongly about it.
Gemma, London

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