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What My Peers Think

BY: Eric Skrzyniarz | Category: Others | Submitted: 2010-12-10 07:23:38
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Article Summary: "Experiment for a college seminar that explores the bystander effect and its implications for altruism. In my experiment, I defined my peers as St. Mary's students. While walking along a path, I dropped either a pencil or a dollar bill with a subject behind me, and kept track of the return rates..."

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In my experiment, I wanted to test the bystander effect, and how it's interaction with the severity of the situation we are in has an effect on whether or not we perform altruistic acts. The bystander effect is the phenomenon that people are less likely to do anything to help a person in need if they are in a group. These odds decrease even further as the size of the group grows (Schwartz 2009). When considering how to go about testing this, I decided that a naturalistic observational study would give me the most legitimate results. For my study, a survey would be ineffective because it would be strongly biased by what people would like to think they would do in a certain situation. Attempting to simulate a real-life situation is the best way to test for the bystander effect because it is the only way for subjects to experience the psychological effects of being in a group when making a decision.

In my experiment, I defined my peers as St. Mary's students. While walking along a path, I dropped either a pencil or a dollar bill with a subject behind me, and kept track of the return rates. The pencil and the dollar bill represent different severities of situations. A pencil presumably has little to no value to me, and so my losing it represents a non-threatening situation. On the other hand, a dollar bill has a tangible value, and so potentially losing it becomes a more serious situation for me. The other variable I wanted to test was the bystander effect. I tested this by dropping my items in front of individual subjects as well as subjects in groups. Any drop in return rates from individual subjects to groups would indicate that the bystander effect was at play. I dropped 10 items each for the following categories: individual pencils, group pencils, individual dollars, group dollars. When these variables are combined, it becomes apparent whether the seriousness of a situation influences group psychology towards performing helpful acts.

When I began my study, I expected a lower return rate on items of higher value. I figured that at least a few people would be inclined to keep what I had dropped if it was more valuable. However, this was not the case. Of the individuals that I dropped a dollar in front of, 90% returned it to me, versus only 70% of individuals returning my pencil. What this told me was that, contrary to what I had expected, an item of higher value being dropped actually increased the chances that I would get it back. This is probably due to my perceived level of distress. When I dropped a pencil, an item that presumably means almost nothing to me, people did not view me as being in any kind of distress. Many still did return it to me out of sheer kindness, but the 30% that did not probably just figured that I could simply take out another pencil when I got to class and whether or not they went out of their way to help would essentially not make a difference. However, when I dropped a dollar bill, I was potentially losing something of value to me, and people were much more likely to view me as needing someone to help. When people felt like I needed help, as opposed to being in an ambiguous situation, they felt more inclined to return my item to me. This indicates that individuals are more likely to perform acts of altruism when it benefits someone in a more severe situation.

What surprised me even more was the power of the bystander effect. Of course I had expected it to show up, but certainly not in the way that it did. When I dropped my pencil in front of a group of people, only 30% returned it to me. The same rate held when I dropped a dollar in front of a group of people. This dramatic drop could be due to a number of factors. Members of the group could have experienced what is called a diffusion of responsibility, or the phenomenon that responsibility to act is perceived to be spread out amongst all members of a group, making individual members feel less pressure to help (Schwartz 2009). Another factor could be fear of ridicule, although in this case, since there should not be anything embarrassing about returning a lost item to its owner, the ridicule should not be harsh if it occurs at all. People may also create a reason in their head not to help if they see that others around them are not helping either. They will think that since nobody else is helping, or since I'm only losing a dollar, it is morally acceptable not to act (Schwartz 2009). It is even possible that some groups were too involved in their conversations to notice that I had dropped anything at all. Whatever the case may be, the drop in return rates from individual to group certainly back up all the premises of the bystander effect.

When comparing the effects of both the value of the items and whether or not the subject was in a group at the same time, some interesting topics come in to play. What interested me a lot was how the bystander effect seemed to be unaffected by the value of the items dropped. In the cases of both the dollar and the pencil, subjects in groups returned my item 30% of the time. This told me that groups thought largely the same way regardless of how valuable the missing item was, while individual psychology changed when the variable of value came in to play, as I had a 90% return rate in dollars versus only 70% in pencils. To me, this has a few interesting implications. First, it means that groups of people tend to be extremely predictable. Regardless of the values of the people you put together, you are likely to see the same things occur in similar situations. It also tells me that the bystander effect occurs in a wide range of scenarios regarding one's distress, and not just extremely serious situations like the murder of Kitty Genovese, where numerous bystanders did nothing to prevent the murder of a 28-year-old girl because they all thought someone else would do something (Schwartz 2009). What grabbed my attention most, though, was this: What does it mean if whether or not individuals perform their altruistic actions is based on someone else's level of distress? Do we think less morally in a group than we think as individuals? I think that individuals are inclined to help each other, as evident by my high return rates in the individual category. Because neither of my situations were very severe in the broad scope of life, my results told me that individuals are extremely likely to go out of their way to help someone with a minor problem, and that serious problems are not the only things that motivate us to do good for each other. Also, despite the drop in return rates from group to individual, I do not think that we think any less morally in groups than we do as individuals. I think that instead, the social pressures involved in being in a group make it harder for someone to pull the trigger and do what they are already feeling that they should. The fact that 30% of my items were returned in the group scenario indicates that even if the majority of people do not act, the thought that one should act to help is still there. People are motivated to perform acts of altruism, but the thought processes involved in being in a group makes it hard for people to act on this motivation, regardless of the severity of the situation.

About Author / Additional Info:
I used information from,, and to help put this paper together. Although the website wouldn't let me reference these, I just wanted to make sure this was clear. There's a bibliography on my original paper.

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