Hidden Camera Experiment: What Would You Do?

ByABC News

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.

Another was Kathleen, who stepped in by asking, "Excuse me, is there a problem here?"

One of the men who intervened was a cyclist named Randy. He challenged Nate over his behavior, and then backed away to diffuse the tension -- but didn't leave.

Michael also wheeled by and stopped. He took off his glasses and his backpack, making a physical confrontation seem inevitable. He stared down Nate for six-and-a- half minutes, but also talked him down and created the opportunity for Sara to leave.

"Maybe I'm old-fashioned, I don't know. But I just can't stand someone getting hurt. So I just had to do something," Michael said.

As part of a similar experiment, "Primetime" met with Pat Rocchio, the proprietor of a local deli in a quiet community on New York's Staten Island. An actor would play a shoplifter, and Pat would get to see if any of her customers stopped her.

Rocchio was convinced that her customers were good people who loved her, and therefore, would intervene. "If I wanted to really run for mayor, I think I would win out here," she said.

But Rocchio soon came to doubt that perspective as time and time again she watched the shoplifter blatantly and obviously put merchandise in her purse -- batteries, even tips from the tip jar -- without her customers saying anything.

One customer waited for the shoplifter by the door and casually asked her as she was leaving, "How are the goods today?" He says it was to warn her that he saw her -- but he didn't stop her.

Anna, who has known Rocchio for years, witnessed the shoplifter and told a fellow customer, but didn't tell Rocchio.

Instead, she tried to make eye contact with Rocchio. She later told Rocchio, "I was, like, trying to show you with my eye, but I didn't want to like say, 'Pat, that woman right there.'"

Jason, the customer whom Anna told, said he was going to tell Rocchio, but by the time he got around to it, the shoplifter had already walked out.

Rocchio said she almost lost faith in her customers. "I never ever thought that would happen here. I really thought more people would be telling than not telling me," she said.

But then came two who told her when they saw the shoplifting. One was Joanne, who told "Primetime," "I don't know if I would have said it out loud, and endanger myself, you know, but to just try to nudge the owner or the salesperson."

The other was Josephine, who was in the store with her daughter, Jessica. She said she was angered by the crime, but also scared.

"I took a chance even with my 10-year-old. I didn't know if somebody was armed, or if she had a little gun, so I just wanted to get out of there," she said.

It turns out that the two who took action in "Primetime's" second experiment are women.

In light of the first experiment, the results raised the question: Are women more compassionate? Is there perhaps a kind of sisterhood that looks out for the vulnerable?

There are no clear answers, but experts say for both men and women, knowing what to do can be a critical factor.

Of those who intervened in the first experiment, most had some relevant experience that may have influenced their decision to act. Amy is the mother of three girls. Kathleen is a teacher for troubled teens. And Michael is a karate instructor.

But the people who intervened in the second experiment had no such relevant background. Joanne is an office manager of an architecture firm, and Josephine works at a psychiatric clinic.

If you don't have the background, what should you do?

"Primetime" asked a dozen police departments across the country, and they said customers should never confront a shoplifter directly. They counseled people to tell a store clerk -- but do it discreetly, out of earshot.

In the case of the argument, virtually every police department "Primetime" consulted said you should call 911. But many also conceded that if a verbal argument has not turned physically violent, the call may get a low priority.

In some jurisdictions, if there's pushing or shoving between adults, police are required to make an arrest. But professor Richard Gelles, an expert on domestic violence, said that could anger the abuser without necessarily helping to address the problem.

Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy & Practice, had some suggestions on the other kinds of action one can take.

One is to be patient and begin by making eye contact with the abuser without saying a word.

"You're sending the message, 'What I think is going on here is wrong, and I'm going to do something about it if you don't stop,'" Gelles said.

If the abuser doesn't stop, you can take out your cell phone and nonverbally signal that you are going to call the authorities, he said.

And if you're worried about getting involved and having to confront someone truly dangerous, Gelles says that is an unlikely outcome.

"The odds are in your favor that it's not going to happen," he said. "But that's why you have your cell phone in your hand, if you hit the long odds."

In other words, if you're gut tells you something is wrong, do something ... even if it's just standing your ground.

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