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Effect of Victim's Need and Previous Accusation of Theft Upon Bystander's Reaction to Theft

NCJ Number
Journal of Social Psychology Volume: 112 Dated: (October 1980) Pages: 41-49
W A Harrell; J W Goltz
Date Published
9 pages
A field experiment analyzed the effects of victim neediness, false accusations of stealing, and numbers of thieves on bystander reactions to thefts in a university library.
Several studies which have explored the relationship between victims and bystanders are reviewed briefly. For this experiment male and female university students studying alone in the library were subjected unknowingly to various test situations conducted by four teams of six undergraduates each. Some students were wrongfully accused of taking books prior to observing a theft, others were permitted to overhear a conversation between a victim and a friend indicating financial problems or lack of such problems before witnessing the theft of the victim's calculator. Some bystanders were told that books were missing but they were not accused personally, and two thieves were used in some situations. Observers scored bystander reactions according to active intervention in the theft, such as reporting it to the victim, or lack of involvement. All subjects who intervened or reported the theft were informed immediately about the experiments. Data on 80 bystanders were selected for the final analysis which indicated that individuals were more likely to intervene in a theft if the victim was impoverished rather than prosperous. Subjects who had been accused of theft were more likely to help than those not accused, possibly to prove their honesty. There was a slight tendency for more helping to occur when there was only one thief. Neediness of the victim had a greater effect on females than males. This could be attributed to a greater sensitivity to distress in others by women of Western society and more empathy because most victims in the experiment were women. Since research has shown that bystander responses tend to depend on the situation, further study is needed to discover if these findings are applicable to other populations and settings. The bibliography lists 19 references.


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