March 25, 2008 -- For visitors and residents of Long Branch, N.J., it was a typical, tranquil day at the beach — until they heard three young, bikini-clad women spouting insults at a woman on the boardwalk.
"Oh my God! You are so fat," one of the girls said. "How could you sit here and eat like that? Have you ever tried lipo? What about gastric bypass?"
The target of the girls' vicious remarks was a middle-aged woman sitting on a bench and snacking on a few fries while trying to enjoy her book.
"Please just leave me alone," the woman pleaded.
The language was no doubt disturbing, but the three young women and their victim, Cynthia, were actors taking part in an ABC News experiment. We lined the boardwalk of this Jersey Shore town with hidden cameras and kept a watchful eye on the scene from our control van parked nearby.
The purpose? To find out what people would do if they saw three teens verbally harassing a woman simply because of her weight.
'D-G-I, Don't Get Involved'
Most passersby appeared oblivious. Fourteen beachgoers walked by without even glancing at the actors, despite their clearly hateful remarks.
Then, a woman named Elayne walked by with her son, Alex, and the girls no longer went unnoticed. Obviously concerned, Elayne and Alex looked back several times as they walked past but chose not to stop.
"It's very unfortunate, you know, how they could be so mean to each other, but I wasn't going to get involved," Elayne said. "Sometimes you have to just be like 'D-G-I, don't get involved.'"
A Universal Stereotype
"[Alex and Elayne] could have seen it as really not that bad, not deserving of an intervention at all, or they could have seen it as something that wasn't their business," said Carrie Keating, a social psychology professor at Colgate University.
Keating was shocked at how few people noticed but chose not to intervene. She said this stems from a stereotype that overweight people only have themselves to blame.
"They're perceived as not very smart, out of control … lazy, unhealthy," Keating said. "The stereotypes and prejudices we have about overweight people are so prolific, they're so pervasive that we often fail to recognize them."
Indeed, the stereotype was so pervasive that 35 percent of people polled in an ABC News survey reported prejudices or "negative feelings" toward the overweight.
Keating cited the cruelty of our actors' unscripted taunts and how easily the girls improvised.
"Wasn't it interesting that the actresses who were harassing this woman came up with such powerful language … and they didn't need a script to do it," Keating said.
The Sweetest Touch
Finally, a woman named Sally had heard enough. She engaged our mean girls, appealing to their softer side. Like Keating, Sally was also shocked at the lack of concern from other pedestrians.
"I felt really sorry for her because she was by herself," Sally said. "It really upset me; everyone's just ignoring her."
It also upset our actors.
"It was getting harder and harder to go on with no one stopping us, because the things that were coming out of our mouths were such hurtful things that none of the three of us would normally say," said Adrienne, one of three taunters.
The Expert Opinion
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."
Altering the Experiment
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."
A Beautiful Ending
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."