After tears and hugs were shared between Sally, the victim Cynthia and the girls, the three taunters resumed their characters and the callous remarks. Then, a young woman named Elizabeth took a second look. Puzzled, she stood at a distance to assess the situation and then approached our actors with a soft-spoken confidence.
"It's really disgraceful to me to see people act this way towards someone else," Elizabeth said to the girls. "I think she can make her own decisions, OK? And she doesn't need people she doesn't know coming up to her and making really hurtful remarks."
Elizabeth is a psychology major studying nutrition and obesity issues. She said she didn't know if she was intervening in the right way, but she knew that she had to say something.
"I guess, given my experience and my education, this is something that I really care about," Elizabeth said. "I want to effect change one day, and it's starting right now."
Of the more than 60 people who clearly heard the nasty insults, only five stopped and intervened. Would this change if the abusers were boys instead of girls?
Mark, Dan, and Matthew, three young actors, were also given the task of relentlessly harassing our other actor, Cynthia, about her weight. The same harsh words ensued.
"Hey fatty. Hi orca," one of the boys said.
Many people noticed and walked by, but they kept their distance. One group of four said they were very concerned but chose to keep an eye on things from the other end of the boardwalk.
"If there was some physical confrontation, then we might have gotten involved," one man in the group said.
Were boys more threatening to passersby, making it harder to approach them?
One woman named Suzanne boldly went up to the trio with her phone out and fingers ready to dial help. Losing sight of her own vulnerability, she stepped in between the harassers and their victim. Without hesitation, she dialed 911.
"I did feel threatened," Suzanne said. "To get involved yourself sometimes can lead to you getting in trouble, but you can't let it go on."
For several others, the need to intervene also superseded any perceived threat.
"I usually get too angry to think that a person's going to do something to me, which is not safe, but that's how I normally react," said another woman who confronted the abusers.
Our victim was sincerely grateful for her defenders and admitted the experiment was beginning to feel very personal.
"Even though I know they're acting, it's still kind of harsh to hear those words," Cynthia said. "It makes you think for a second, 'You know, why are they saying them?'"
Keating, the social psychology professor, said that the "actress sitting on the bench must have had a very long day, hearing this kind of language coming so easily. There's a kernel of truth there buried in what the actors and actresses did. And that truth rings loud and clear in the ears — in the mind of the victim."
In the end, it was a combination of anger toward the abusers and sympathy for our victim that fueled intervention. The compassion was palpable.
"I would want somebody to get involved if it was me or my daughter or my sons or my friend or my mother or grandmother," said another woman who called the police.
For actor Cynthia, the long day ended on a high note. After a barrage of harsh words and taunting remarks, a woman named Lynne offered a whisper of encouragement.
"Don't let them beat up on you," she said. "You're beautiful."