An Upside to Privacy Loss: Reversing the Bystander Effect

Over the last decade society has consistently made the decision to trade privacy for convenience. We’re now on a clear path to a day where nearly everybody’s smartphone will transmit their location to advertisers, friends, and whatever other entities can supply convenience in exchange for location information. While many people lament such a future, there are bound to be some unforeseen benefits. For example, a new study on reversing the bystander effect hints at one way having your location tracked can be socially beneficial.

One explanation for the bystander effect is that large groups make people feel more anonymous and less likely to be judged or evaluated on their behavior. A group of Dutch researchers led by Marco van Bommel hypothesized that they could reverse this effect by increasing “accountability” cues that decreased anonymity and signaled an individual could be identified and evaluated.

To test this idea subjects in two different studies were asked to offer help in an online support forum. The number of visitors to the forums were varied to mimic having a high or low number of bystanders. In the first study, the screen-names of certain subjects were made red to increase their salience. In the second study, certain participants were videotaped by a webcam as they offered help.

For subjects without increased self-awareness (i.e. subjects who were not videotaped and didn’t have red screen-names) the standard bystander effect held — the presence of bystanders made them less likely to help. However, as predicted, the bystander effect was reversed for those with increased self-awareness. When subjects were videotaped or had their names made more salient, the presence of other bystanders made them more likely to help.

It seems plausible that your smartphone could serve the same function as the webcam or red text used in the experiments. By revealing that you were in a certain location at a certain time, your smartphone destroys the anonymity that would otherwise keep you from being evaluated. You can now be judged, and your reputation is at risk. Imagine somebody collapses near you on a crowded street. In reality, it’s very unlikely anybody will know if you were there and chose not to help. However, the knowledge that there is a record showing you were there might lead to a sense of public self-awareness that alters your behavior.
van Bommel, M., van Prooijen, J., Elffers, H., & Van Lange, P. (2012). Be Aware to Care: Public Self-Awareness Leads to a Reversal of the Bystander Effect Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.011


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