Investigating the bystander effect: Virtual Reality as a viable platform for experimental psychology

January 14, 2013, Bournemouth University
Animated enviroment for the simulation.

The bystander effect is well-known in behavioural psychology and suggests that the more people who witnessing a violent emergency the less likely it is that someone will intervene. It was first identified in the 1960s, but conducting research on the phenomenon has been difficult. Most experiments rely upon staging fake emergencies or violent encounters using actors, but it is tricky to gauge how genuine a response is.

Dr Richard Southern, Research Lecturer from Bournemouth University and his colleagues have turned to 3D technology in an attempt to overcome these obstacles. This work has recently appeared in the .

"We realised that to conduct experiments we had to recreate reality as best we could," he says. "With virtual reality, if you can trick people into believing they are in a place and the responses that occur around them in that environment are believable, then people will respond in a realistic way."

To create their , Dr Southern and Professor Jian J Zhang also from Bournemouth University used a system based at University College London (UCL) called 'ReaCToR.' are projected onto the walls and floor of a small room using high-resolution . A person stepping into the room wears lightweight similar to those used on modern 3D TVs, producing a realistic 3D sports bar scene. Head- ensures they see the image from the right perspective while an eight-speaker system delivers directional sound.

In a series of experiments conducted with colleagues at UCL and Lancaster University, the team recruited Arsenal FC fans and asked them to enter the 'ReaCToR' to look out for football memorabilia. Once inside, the participants are met with a confrontation between two men.

"We used different scenarios to see if we could see what factors can impede whether someone will intervene when the confrontation starts," Dr Southern explains. "We varied whether the victim in the confrontation was a supporter of Arsenal and wore an Arsenal jersey or showed little interest in the team and wore a generic red shirt. The participants intervene significantly more if they are of the same group affiliation as the victim."

In another experiment, the researchers programmed the virtual victim to look directly at the participant during the confrontation to plead for help. In this case the participants tended to feel more concerned about the victim's safety and their intervention tended to be verbal rather than physical, implying a higher level of engagement.

The researchers also filled the bar with other virtual characters that reacted differently to the confrontation. In one case a man watching the struggle simply shrugs when the participant looks at him. The virtual bystanders also shout out to either encourage the participant to intervene or discourage them.

Interestingly, this work could go far beyond telling us more about the frailties of the human mind. It has already attracted attention from the police and the Ministry of Defence to help train their personnel in diffusing confrontational situations. The technology could even be used to help evaluate prisoner's likelihood of violent re-offending and a pilot study has already yielded promising results.

Dr Southern said: "This is an enabling technology. It paves the way towards using immersive scenarios for all kinds of uses."

More information: Slater, M. Bystander Responses to a Violent Incident in an Immersive Virtual Environment. PLOS ONE. Jan. 2, 2013. dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.005276

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.