Re-Creating the 'Beach Blanket Experiment'

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

ByABC News
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."

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.