Re-Creating the 'Beach Blanket Experiment'

It was a typical day at the beach. Families frolicked in the waves, tourist boats floated in the waters, and, of course, hot bodies were everywhere.

Then, all of a sudden, the unexpected occurred. A thief ran by and swiped an iPod off a neighboring blanket while its owner had gone to the boardwalk. What would beachgoers sitting nearby do when they witnessed this act of injustice? Nothing? Call the police? Or did they turn to vigilantism and confront the thief themselves?

Luckily for the victim, no real theft actually occurred. Both the victim and the thief were actors, staging the theft as part of a hidden camera scenario for "What Would You Do?" With cameras wrapped in beach blankets and audio equipment stowed in coolers, the "What Would You Do" team set out to explore how innocent bystanders would react to a theft when they didn't know cameras were rolling.

Beach Theft
Will Kindness of Strangers Stop Theft?

Our experiments were based on a 1972 study conducted by Thomas Moriarty who found that, when a member of a research team left his beach blanket unattended while another member stole a radio, 1 out of 5 people intervened if the victim had made no previous exchanges with his neighbors. However, when the owner of the radio directly asked his neighbors to keep an eye on his belongings while he stepped away, people intervened 95 percent of the time.

Would people react the same way 30 years later? Surely, we've evolved. To find out how people would react, we headed back to the beach to do the same study. We also threw in a few twists.

For our first test, we had our actress, Havilah, make no contact with her neighbors. She quietly stepped away from her blanket and watched the thievery ensue. The reactions of bystanders were comparable to those discovered by Moriarity's 1972 research team: No one got involved.

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"I was going to call the lifeguard," said one bystander, Alan, "but then I said: What am I creating here? Maybe it's nothing."

Creating 'Social Glue'

Alan's reaction was not uncommon among bystanders who had made no contact with our actress. Some assumed that the thief was actually our victim's boyfriend. Others even second-guessed themselves about what they saw. According to Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating, the fact that bystanders did not get involved does not come as a huge surprise.

"Individuals who are watching that scenario might be a little unsure about whether or not intervention was actually required. … The greater the ambiguity, the less likely it is for people to respond," she said.

Of course, there's virtually no ambiguity if you directly ask your neighbor to watch your stuff. But we wondered, is it necessary to be so literal or would just a little small talk with your neighbors do the trick? According to Keating, a few words can go a long way:

"Having a dialogue with someone is really like a social glue, and it gets us thinking in a different manner," she said.

So, for our next test, we had Havilah set up her blanket close to other beachgoers and asked her to exchange a few words with them.

"Have you been sitting out here long? All day?" she asked the couple sitting next to her.

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