Will Eyewitnesses to a Crime Take Action?

It was a typical afternoon at the Reservoir Tavern, a family restaurant in a quiet suburban New Jersey town. The customers enjoying their lunch were completely unaware that someone in the restaurant was about to commit a crime. ABC News had arranged for actors to stage a theft at the restaurant to see how witnesses would react when a woman steals a man's wallet.

A blond middle-aged woman walked into the bar area and cased the place, pacing from one end of the bar to the other. Her eyes were drawn to a customer who had left his wallet out on the bar. She quietly plucked the wallet off the bar and slid it into her coat pocket. She passed many other patrons as she walked out the door and down the stairs.

At first, no one said anything or made a move. A man at the end of the bar clearly noticed what had happened, yet he did nothing … at first.

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Ten seconds passed, and the eyewitness continued to relax at the bar. Not until the victim shouted, "Did somebody just take my wallet? Holy s***! Did you see my wallet?" did anyone make a move.

The eyewitness then jumped into action and ran out of the restaurant after the thief.

Watch the premiere of "Primetime: What Would You Do?" Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 10 p.m. ET

Yale psychology professor Jack Dovidio said people who witness crimes don't always react right away. Even though the customer saw the wallet getting stolen, he may have been "confused."

"The wallet's there, someone takes it, [but] nobody else says anything," Dovidio explained. "Once the situation was clear to him, he knew what he had to do."

Taking Action

The eyewitness, Deszo Benyo, caught up with the thief in the parking lot and brought her back into the restaurant. When asked why he got involved, Benyo said he "just stopped something that happened that shouldn't have happened." Benyo said he would have stepped in regardless of the sex or age of the thief.

Benyo's friend, Avon Prior, was sitting next to him at the bar. Prior said he was proud of his friend and credited adrenaline. "I'd want somebody to help me if I was in that situation," he said.

So why the initial hesitation? Was it just a fluke? Both the thief and the victim were actors hired by ABC News, and the bar area of the restaurant was rigged with hidden cameras to help determine what makes people act when they witness a crime.

We reset the scene and waited for a new group of customers to arrive. Once again, the female thief found her mark and snatched the wallet. This time, there was no doubt that a young man sitting behind the victim saw the crime in progress. Once again, no one did anything until our victim shouted out "Sir, did you see a wallet there?"

The eyewitness, Evan Schroth, told our actor that a woman had walked out with his wallet.

Schroth followed the victim out the door where he was met by our camera crews. Schroth told us if our actor hadn't said something he probably would not have reacted or done anything to help. "I wouldn't have thought about it," he said.

Dovidio said that people often look around to other people to get cues as to how to respond. He said even if we see a crime, sometimes we still need others to confirm it before we step in, and we need certainty that something is wrong to speak out.

Did it matter that the thief was a woman and the victim a man? We decided to switch the roles of our actors so the male actor did the stealing. His target was a big red leather purse hanging from the back of our female actor's bar stool.

As he grabbed the purse, a female customer sitting next to the victim instantly reacted. She grabbed at our actor, shouted at him, jumped out of her chair and headed out the door in pursuit of the thief, followed by other customers.

Dovidio says that often the behavior of the person who sees the crime sets the course for what happens next. In his case, the female customer reacted instantly and other patrons jumped in and followed her example.

Putting Personal Safety Second

We found that female witnesses were just as quick to respond as male witnesses. Dovidio explained that helping someone in need isn't necessarily rational. "When a woman sees another woman being hurt, being harmed in a situation like that, they're going to identify, they're going to be the one to take the lead," he said.

While people were often slow to act, when they did, they threw caution to the wind. "People actually care very often about other people first, and they think about their own safety second. … I think it's an inspiring aspect of human nature," said Dovidio.

But those inspiring responses can also be dangerous. In our next experiment with a male thief and a female victim, three men sprang to their feet and out the door. In the parking lot, customer Kevin Mulligan was shoved aside by another customer, Keith Krieger, who was right behind him. Krieger charged at our actor and threw a punch square in his jaw. We quickly stepped in, explaining that it was all an experiment.

Kreiger later said that our actor looked suspicious, and that his wife had noticed the purse snatching. "I just came outside … and approached him," he said. "Maybe sometimes in this day and age, there's not enough sense of community."

Krieger's approach shocked Mulligan, the first man out the door. "When I got to him, I just sort of put my hand on his arm. I said look, you know this is this lady's pocket book. And I wanted to take him alive. But this guy came out of nowhere and threw a haymaker at him."

Fortunately, the actor, who is also a personal trainer, was OK.

So what's the right thing to do?

Dovidio said that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you should "think … slow yourself down, pause, don't be impulsive because not only can you do something to harm another person but you can do something to harm yourself."

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