Street brawl, fighting
An example of the footage analysed in the study.
  • European researchers studied CCTV footage of street fights to determine if the so-called "bystander effect" means victims of public aggression won't get help.
  • They painstakingly analysed recordings of incidents ranging from "the mildest animated disagreements" to "grave physical violence" in Amsterdam, Lancaster, and Cape Town.
  • The result: people will step in to help 9 times out of 10 – even in Cape Town.
  • For more stories go to the Business Insider South Africa homepage.

If you become embroiled in public aggression on the streets of Cape Town, other people will step in to help almost every time – just as often as they would in Amsterdam or Lancaster, according to new research.

South Africa is perceived to be a lot less safe than the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, so Capetonians could perhaps have been forgiven for just walking on by rather than stepping in. But even correcting for how long a scuffle lasted (and so the window of opportunity for bystanders to intervene), researchers found no significant difference in the likelihood of intervention between the three cities.

And the likelihood of someone helping is high.

"We found that in nine-out-of-ten conflicts at least one person – but typically several – did something to help," the researchers say in their paper "Would I be helped? Cross-national CCTV footage shows that intervention is the norm in public conflicts", published in the January edition of the journal American Psychologist.

Under the auspices of the Free University Amsterdam and the University of Exeter, the group solicited CCTV footage of aggressive incidents from the city councils of Lancaster and Cape Town, and from the Dutch ministry of justice. They then painstaking filtered and analysed incidents ranging from "the mildest animated disagreements" to "grave physical violence", ultimately comparing 219 samples of "real life public space conflicts".

In each of the incidents at least two individuals are in conflict, in a situation that does not include "another type of incident" such as robbery, begging, or a traffic incident. Nor are police or paramedics on the scene when fighting breaks out.

The researchers then looked for bystanders – defined as anyone who is not on of the two individuals involved in the initial conflict – who did any of the following:

  • pacifying gesturing
  • calming touches
  • blocking contact between conflict parties
  • holding, pushing or pulling an aggressor away from the conflict
  • consoling a victim of aggression
  • providing practical help to a physically harmed victim

Someone nearly always did at least one of those things, with no bigger or lesser chance that they would do so in Cape Town.

It is "surprising that the magnitude of the intervention rates does not vary between the three national-city contexts, given that inner-city Cape Town, South Africa has comparatively lower perceptions of public safety.. that may elicit significantly less intervention (because of personal risk aversion) or more intervention (because of greater perceived victim need)," the researchers say in their findings.

The work was not aimed at comparing cities but intended to examine the practical implications, if any, of what is known as the "bystander effect", a long-held theory of psychology that says individuals are more likely to help others in an emergency when they are alone than when in a group – because everyone assumes someone else will step in.

What victims in an emergency really need to know, the study authors say, is whether someone will help, whatever the likelihood of any individual helping may be. Or, to put it simply, is there safety in numbers?

The answer appears to be clear; real-life incidents show that bystanders will intervene, "with each additional bystander increasing the odds that a victim receives help".

That implies people are willing to self-police, and that there is strength in numbers; while being around more people may increase the risk of conflict, it also increases the odds that someone will help.

One major caveat, the study authors note, is that their footage came from central business districts only, areas with shops and nightclubs and foot traffic.

"This inner-city restriction on the data selection strategy meant that we did not capture violence intervention rates in the encompassing areas, which particularly in the South African case might provide different results because surrounding disadvantaged areas (referred to as townships) have disproportionally higher levels of public crime," they warn.

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