Hidden Camera Experiment: What Would You Do?

ByABC News
September 22, 2005, 6:29 PM

Sept. 22, 2005 -- -- What if you were walking through a park and you saw a couple get into a heated argument? The man didn't hit the woman, but seemed to be on the edge of physical violence and pushed her.

Or, imagine if you were in your neighborhood convenience store, and you saw a brazen shoplifter at work. The shop owner's not a friend, but she's always been friendly to you.

What would you do? Would you think you had an obligation to intervene? What do you think others would do?

The answers to these questions may surprise you. For many people, they can be ethical gray areas -- situations where there's not a clear enough reason to act.

"Primetime" sent a crew of cameras and actors to stage the scenarios and see how people would behave, and talk to them afterward to explain why they behaved the way they did.

When actors Nate Michaux and Sarah Bloom staged their argument in Saddle River County Park in Bergen County, N.J., on a quiet summer afternoon, many people noticed, but few people took action.

Two women told "Primetime" cameras that they were frightened for Sarah, but getting involved seemed too dangerous. "He might pull out a knife or anything on her," said Shanelle. "You don't know." But they did add that if Nate had gotten more violent, they would have called 911.

Jose, an off-duty cop, slowed down to get a closer look -- but ultimately said nothing. He said the argument wasn't physical enough for him to get involved, and he wasn't armed at the time.

During two days and 16 hours of taping, 92 men were captured by our cameras -- and just five of them did anything to help. Out of 100 women, 14 intervened, stopped or dialed 911 -- more than double the rate of men.

One of those who chose to intervene was Amy, the manager for a local gym. She interrupted their argument by challenging Nate, telling him, "Would you get away from her?"

She says she was scared, but explains she was compelled to help by a troubling memory of seeing a mother dragging her screaming daughter by her hair. "To this day it always bothered me that I never ... that nobody ever stood up and stopped the lady," she said.