Living in a safer world: Offering help when surrounded by others for the sake of reputation

Let’s run you through the study by Van Bommel and colleagues (2012). During the experiment, participants were divided into one of 4 conditions, and they read messages on an online support-website which offers visitors the chance to help people with their problems. In the four different conditions, bystanders were either present or not, and the participant’s own presence on the forum was salient (by having a webcam positioned at the participant) or not-salient (no webcam present). So, let’s imagine you are seated in a separate cubicle with a computer. In front of you is a webcam, and you are asked to read messages on the online forum. You read that the forum is visited by many people. The computer automatically selects messages that have not received any response yet. These are personal stories from people in distress. For example, one message is about someone who just had a very bad breakup. You are free to give a response and help the writer of the message if you want to, or continue to the next message. Now the question is: Would you help the members of the forum? Chances are high that you would indeed offer help. Having a heightened public self-awareness (by having the webcam positioned at you), will promote your helping behavior in the presence of others. This shows that the presence of other bystanders can promote, rather than undermine, helping behavior. So, being in a situation with many bystanders doesn’t necessarily have to be detrimental to the person in need, it can also be beneficial. As expected, the classic bystander effect was found when people’s public self-awareness was not increased. Indeed, if you do not believe your presence is more noticeable, you are less willing to offer help in the presence of many bystanders. Van Bommel and colleagues (2012) explain these findings by mentioning that people will only change their behavior when they believe other bystanders will hold them accountable for their actions.

To conclude, we cannot simply say that the presence of more bystanders makes us reluctant to help. There are more factors involved than merely the number of bystanders, and public self-awareness is one of these. However, just the fact that other people are present does not automatically create a state of self-awareness in us (Froming, Walker & Lopyan, 1982), but discriminating cues signaling that our behavior can be detected and evaluated does (Prentice-Dunn & Rogers, 1982). One of these cues is the presence of a camera. Furthermore, a heightened public self-awareness will make you seek social approval. You believe you will be held accountable for your actions. Moreover, you are aware of the fact that others can judge your behavior. Therefore, you worry about what others will think of you. You want to make sure you are evaluated positively. Helping someone indicates that you are a nice and decent person, and thus you will be evaluated positively when you help someone in need. Put differently, offering help is a perfect way to increase your reputation as a decent person. As we suggested, this increased helping behavior may ensure the decrease in violence. This would imply that we are living in a safer world today because we don’t want to shatter our reputations. Therefore, people’s underlying reasons for behaving prosocially may not be perfect, but at least this reasoning can lead to a safer world.


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