Re-Creating the 'Beach Blanket Experiment'

Making contact with strangers makes a big difference in certain situations.

March 16, 2009, 9:44 AM

March 16, 2009— -- 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.

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.

"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.

The couple clearly acknowledged Havilah. But would they come to her aid in her moment of need? Without mentioning a word about the iPod, Havilah left her belongings and headed to the boardwalk. Our thief, Eric, then walked by and grabbed the iPod. Just when we started to wonder if they were going to do anything, our couple spoke up.

Man: "Is that her radio?"

Woman: "Yeah! Hey!"

Man: "Yo!"

Woman: "Hey!"

The man then followed our thief for more than 200 yards down the beach, determined to retrieve the stolen property.

"This is not like my husband -- to confront somebody," admitted his wife. But with a small community formed (from the simple dialogue with Havilah), this man was willing to act in ways that were, maybe, not so typical.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt?

Of course, it is one thing to help out a sweet, innocent woman, but what if the beachgoer was instead annoying, obnoxious, even downright disgusting?

For our first big twist to the scenario, we had Havilah inch up to a young family catching some rays. She blasted music that would make Mozart turn in his grave, she screamed at her "brother" on her cell phone, and she proceeded to carry out her "personal hygiene" in view of everyone on the beach, shaving her legs and armpits.

The family seemed to react with a saintly patience, ignoring our obnoxious victim and letting her go about her business. But when Havilah finally left, the family let out a sigh of relief, joking that maybe they should move her stuff far far away. Surely, they wouldn't stop someone else from stealing her iPod.

But we were wrong!

When our thief stole the annoying woman's iPod, the family was not only upset but one member, Billy, set off in a full-out sprint, chasing him for hundreds of yards in the hot sand. Upon catching Eric, Billy cursed him out and ripped the iPod from his hands.

It turns out even a negative interaction can prompt a positive intervention.

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