Ever hear of the ‘bystander effect’? In essence, it’s the observation that the more people present to witness a violent incident, the less likely it is that any one of them will intervene to help the victim. Mel Slater of University College London and his colleagues used immersive virtual reality to study this phenomenon.
The authors hypothesized that the bystander effect would be minimized if the victim were a member of the same group as the witness. Since actually mugging people in order to study the reactions of bystanders would be unethical, the researchers resorted to virtual attacks. They recruited 40 ardent supporters of the Arsenal Football Club, a football (or soccer) club based in Holloway London, and immersed them in a life-sized virtual bar. Within that environment, each participant was approached by a virtual human (V for victim) who spent a few minutes talking to the subject about football. In some cases, V was also a huge Arsenal fan. Next, a second virtual person (P for perpetrator) started an argument with V that ended violently.
Four combinations of factors were recorded: whether V was a fellow Arsenal fan (in group versus out group) and whether V made eye contact with the volunteers during the attack. Ten participants were tested for each of these combinations. Any attempt by the volunteers to intervene verbally or physically was recorded. As expected, there were more intervention attempts on the part of the test subjects when V was part of the same in-group. Whether or not V looked to the subjects for help did not seem to make much difference.
Mel Slater, Aitor Rovira, Richard Southern, David Swapp, Jian J. Zhang, Claire Campbell, & Mark Levine (2012). Bystander Responses to a Violent Incident in an Immersive Virtual Environment PloS ONE : doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052766.