Effect of Racial Attitude and Victim Gaze on Helping Behaviour

The bystander effect has been a topic of interest for decades and is a phenomenon which is affected by many variables. Baron and Byrne (2004) discuss five essential steps that must occur if a person is going to help another person in distress. A bystander must notice the event, and then they must interpret what is happening as an emergency (Valentine & Ehrlichman, 1979). Once realizing that an emergency is at hand, a bystander must take personal responsibility for helping, then, if they are going to help, they must know how to do so in the particular situation (Clark & Word, 1974). Finally, the bystander must consider the risks involved and make a decision to help or not (pp. 393-398). If at any step the bystander fails to follow through, they will not offer help. Following this, it is reasonable to assume that many contextual, personal, and cognitive factors come into play, influencing the outcome. If there is more than one bystander present, an individual is more likely to diffuse responsibility to the other bystanders and less likely to follow through on any of these steps (Darley & Latan�, 1968). Other factors that determine whether or not a bystander will offer help include how dependent the bystander perceives the victim (Berkowitz & Daniels, 1963, 1964; Berkowitz, Klanderman, & Harris, 1964) and the level of help that they believe the victim requires (Staub & Baer, 1974). Also, if there is more than one course of action that may be taken in helping the victim, the bystander must be able to make a decision about which one to take (Valentine & Ehrlichman, 1979). What is clear from earlier research, is that any factors which increase a bystander’s attraction towards a victim (Clark et al., 1987, in Baron & Byrne 2004 p. 398.) and establishes a positive relationship between victim and bystander (Valentine, 1980) are likely to increase the probability of the bystander offering help.

Bystanders are more likely to help those whom the perceive are similar to themselves (Dovidio & Morris, 1975; Hayden, Jackson, & Guydish, 1984 in Baron & Byre 2004 p. 399). This may explain why earlier research has found that racial attitudes play a role in helping behaviour. It has been found that in America, white bystanders are more likely to help white victims than black ones (Benson, Karabenck, & Lerner, 1976; Gaertner & Bickman, 1971; Gaertner, 1975; Bryan & Test, 1967; Gaertner, 1973; Piliavin, Rodin, & Piliavin, 1969), but only in certain situations (Gaertner, 1975; Piliavin et al., 1969). In fact, in some situations, whites show a more favourable response to black victims than to white ones (Dutton, 1971; Dutton & Lennox, 1974; Katz, Cohen, & Glass, 1975; Thayer, 1973). What accounts for these differences? In a Canadian sample, it was found that when whites show a more favourable response to black victims than white ones they do so in order to avoid the uncomfortable notion that they may be bigoted (Dutton, 1971, 1973; Dutton & Lake, 1973; Dutton & Lennox, 1974). Another finding is that when a subject was the only bystander, they were likely to help both black and white victims equally (Valentine, 1980). It appears that when the bystander weighs the costs of helping versus not helping, the costs are greater when there are no other people with whom they may share the costs (Valentine, 1980). It is not surprising that those who are high in prejudice are less likely to help others of a different race than themselves, especially when there are other passive bystanders present, and when they do help victims of another race, they do so significantly slower than they do those of their own race (Gaertner, Dovidio, & Johnson, 1982). Also, when a bystander is determining how much help a victim needs, their attitudes toward the victim may influence their judgment (Gaertner, 1975). Further, if an individual has a negative attitude towards the victim, they may perceive help as being unnecessary, even when it is really needed (Gaertner, 1975).

In order for someone to elicit help from another person they must form a relationship with the potential helper, albeit a transient one. (Vale tine & Ehrlichman, 1979). An effective way of establishing this momentary relationship is by staring or gazing at the other person (Valentine & Ehrlichman, 1979) as it forces the individuals into a relationship and the stare demands a response (Ellsworth, Carlsmith, & Henson, 1972). The nature of this relationship depends on the situational context and many other variables such as victim and bystander characteristics, length of gaze, and facial expressions (Valentine & Ehrlichman, 1979). It is a good variable to use in a study as it is a strong nonverbal interaction signal which can counter the appearance of bystander effects (Valentine, 1980).

The response elicited from a victim’s stare depends largely on what the stare means for it’s recipient (Valentine & Ehrlichman, 1979). For example, the meaning of a gaze varies between male and female interactants. For females the stare may be seen as a friendly gesture signaling approach (Argyle & Dean, 1965; Stephenson, Rutter, & Dore, 1972) but between males it may be a sign of dominance and threat (Thayer, 1969). This may explain why some research has found that gaze between a female victim and bystander increases helping behaviour by 40%, while gaze between male interactants decreased helping behaviour by 28% (Valentine & Ehrlichman, 1979). It appears then, that gaze is an important factor in establishing the momentary relationship required if a victim wishes to elicit help from bystanders. From this, it may be assumed that the presence of a gaze will influence helping behaviour, even if the victim does not explicitly request help (Ellsworth & Langer, 1976).

Most people find being stared at uncomfortable and will do whatever they can to escape a stare (Ellsworth et al., 1972). Since a stare demands a response, if a person cannot find or act out an appropriate response they are bound to experience a significant amount of tension and will be highly motivated to ease that tension and return to a state of comfortable equilibrium (Ellsworth et al., 1972). A comfortable state may be obtained by either helping the victim or fleeing the situation. In the absence of a victim’s gaze, a bystander is more likely to be helpful when alone. The presence of the victim’s gaze decreases the likelihood that they will receive help when there is more than one bystander present (Valentine, 1980).

In this proposal for field research it is hypothesized that victim gaze and victim race will have a significant effect on the helping behaviour of a bystander who is a member of a group of passive bystanders. In the proposed research project, Caucasian subjects will be randomly selected from an university research pool and categorized as being either high-prejudice or low-prejudice based on their racial attitudes, which will be scored using a standard scale of measurement. Each subject will be placed in a group of confederates who will act as passive bystanders. The first experimental condition will consist of a high-prejudice scoring subject in a group of passive bystanders and the second experimental condition will consist of a low-prejudice scoring subject in a group of passive bystanders. Each group will be exposed to an experimental situation in which they encounter a confederate who plays the role of a victim who is in obvious need of assistance. For each experimental situation this victim will be of either Caucasian or Asian descent. The victim will trip and be sprawled at the foot of a set of stairs, with papers and personal belongings scattered about them, and behaving as if they are in pain, in front of the group of subjects who will be gathered there on the pretense of hearing a public speaker on a current campus issue. For each experimental condition the victim will either make prolonged eye contact with the subject or will not. This is a two-by-two factorial design. Whether or not the subject demonstrates helping behaviour toward the victim will be recorded and the length of time it takes before such behaviour is exhibited will be measured. For the purpose of this experiment helping behaviour is defined as any act of assistance or inquiry into the victim’s well-being on the part of the bystander.


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