Living in a safer world: Offering help when surrounded by others for the sake of reputation

Almost every single day you hear and read terrifying news about violence. A football team kicks the arbiter to death (Mohamed, 2013), two teenagers beat up a 14-year-old boy (Lai, 2012), and a 17-year-old boy is stabbed to death (Mercer, 2013), to name just a few. With all this media attention on violence, it’s not strange that most people believe our world today is more dangerous than ever. Indeed, most people believe violence has increased the past decades. However, believe it or not, research shows there is actually a decline in violence. In his book, Pinker (2011) shows that European countries saw a ten-to-fiftyfold decline in their rates of homicide between the Middle Ages and the 20th century. So, although we seem to hear more about violence today than in the past, research shows that our world today is actually much safer than it ever was before.

How could this possibly be? We reason that a possible explanation for this decline in violence, perhaps, could be related to the reality that our world today is full of cameras. We can find surveillance cameras almost everywhere. Not only can you find them at our malls and train stations, but also at our universities, stadiums and playgrounds. In the United Kingdome alone there are an estimated 1.9 to 4.3 million security cameras, and on an average day, people are caught on tape over seventy times (Gerrard & Thompson, 2011; McCahill & Norris, 2002). Moreover, we are not only caught on tape by security cameras. Mobile phones possessing a camera are becoming more and more popular, and research by Strategy Analytics expected that the worldwide camera phone sales would exceed 1 billion units in 2011 (, 2011). We reason that cameras could lead to a decrease in crime, not simply because they can deter would-be criminals, but because they may influence the behavior of non-criminals. Despite the tremendous increase in the availability of cameras, little is known about how this may impact everyday human behavior. One way all these cameras can influence our everyday lives is that their presence can heighten our public self-awareness. Psychologist are now showing that the heightened self-awareness these cameras are causing may affect our helping behavior (Van Bommel, Van Prooijen, Elffers & Van Lange, 2012). Maybe, the link between public self-awareness and helping behavior also has an effect on the number of violent acts committed. This paper will explore the effect of the presence of cameras on helping behavior, and how this effect may be linked to the decline in violence.

Steven Pinker (2011) shows in his book an astonishing decline in homicide rates across Western Europe. This decline in homicide rates seems to coincide with a decline in male-to-male conflicts (Eisner, 2003; Spierenburg, 2008). Furthermore, the decline in violence is not only observed in Europe. LaFree (1999) discovered that also The United States experienced a sustained decline in violent crime rates during the 1990s. Although it is speculative, one possible explanation for this decline may be bystander intervention. Indeed, it seems that not the police but “informal guardians” or regular people, such as passersby’s, commuters and neighbors are the foremost important force to prevent crime from happening (Cohen & Felson, 1979). Their mere presence may prevent a criminal from engaging in their criminal activities, but they are also the first to respond if a crime or accident does happen. If bystander intervention can prevent violent acts from happening, than bystander intervention could explain why there is a decline in violence. So, maybe violent behavior can be prevented when bystanders offer help during an emergency.

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