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.
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."