Caught on tape: Spectators Never Help When Big Brother is Watching

  By Anne Schless

Where cameras in most situations create awareness about one’s actions which in most emergency situations will result in helping behavior, why didn’t cameras have the same effect in Haren during the Project X party? In the town Haren, the Netherlands, there was a girl who wanted to throw a sweet 16 party for some of her friends. By accident, instead of creating a private event for her friends, she created a public event on Facebook, later dubbed by media “Project X Haren” after the movie Project X which was released earlier this year. Over 30,000 people responded to this event by clicking “Join”, which meant that her birthday bash had gotten a bit bigger than intended. Instead of it being a nice, happy, jolly go merry birthday party, the group turned into a real mob destroying many street signs, cars, even the local supermarket and it was all caught on tape.  You are not going to tell me that everyone who was there condoned the actions of the troublemakers. There should have been some spectators that saw what the other people were doing, didn’t agree and could’ve intervened. Why didn’t they?

In social psychology there is a phenomena called bystander effect  which explains that when there are a lot of people around, bystanders are less likely to undertake any form of action [1]. Spectators will feel less responsible to help when in a group than when there are alone and they can think that someone has already undertaken action or someone else might do so any minute and therefore they will not help [3]. This theory is very applicable to the situation that happened in Haren. Luckily, according to research, bystander effect can be diminished in many situations. Van Bommel and his colleagues [4] propose that by creating public self-awareness via accountability cues, in this case the use of cameras, reduces the bystander effect. This means that when a bystander suddenly is aware that they are a bystander in a certain situation, they will show more helping behavior. In the Project X example, this would mean that the bystanders are aware that they see the troublemakers lighting a car on fire, so then they would undertake action and try to stop them torching the car. To test this, Van Bommel and his colleagues mounted webcams on a computer screen in the lab and had participants check whether or not the indicator light was on or not so that they would be aware that there is a camera present. After that they were asked to fill in a questionnaire. They found that when there are cameras around, people are more likely to show helping behavior on an online forum and they felt more accountable for their actions. They propose that this effect exists because people want to uphold a good reputation.

Now to get back to Project X and its spectators: What do we know? There were a lot of party people, many news crews, a few troublemakers, a police swat team and other people with their cellphones in the ready to catch some live footage of the action. So, news crews with cameras and people with phones filming. This can be seen as the same sort of camera, or accountability cue, as what was used in the Van Bommel study. Yet, even now that there are cameras around the demolition of Haren still continued and no one, that wasn’t law enforcement, tried to hold the troublemakers accountable for their actions and tried to stop them. According to the previous research the cameras should create public self-awareness because the bystanders would want to uphold a good reputation and therefore would intervene. This isn’t what happened in Haren. Bystanders didn’t do anything and let the troublemakers do what they do best, which is destroying everything in their path.

I believe that this isn’t the fault of the crowd and we shouldn’t hate the herd. Where cameras function as an accountability-cue in emergency situations with regular bystanders, with that I mean no professional law enforcers, in Haren a special police team was present which, I believe, reduced the effect of the cameras. People will look at the police to stop the troublemakers and will less likely intervene themselves because they do not feel responsible to act anymore. The police are a paid service group to maintain public order and to diffuse critical situations, so regular bystanders should not have to help [2].

What if the police didn’t show up? Would cameras then have prevented the inaction of bystanders?


[1] Darley, J. M., & Latané, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of  responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 377-383.

[2]Latané, B. & Nida, S. (1981) Ten years of research on group size and helping. Psychological Bulletin, 89, 308-324.

[3] Prentice, D. A., & Miller, D. T. (1996). Pluralistic ignorance and the perpetuation of social norms by unwitting actors. Advances in experimental social psychology, 29, 161–209.

[4] Van Bommel, M., Van Prooijen, J., Elffers, H. & Van Lange, P.A.M. (2012) Be aware to  care: Public self-awareness leads to a reversal of the bystander effect. Journal of  Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 926-930.


2 thoughts on “Caught on tape: Spectators Never Help When Big Brother is Watching

  1. James Scott

    Your analysis gives excellent insight into why the crowd might have behaved the way it did once they had already come together, but I think we can also speculate that they might have started off with violent or disruptive intentions before coming to the event. After all, I’m sure many similar events are started on Facebook without attracting the attention of thousands of violent rioters. Similarly, groupings of police do not always result in riots (although where I’m from, the U.S., the two events are often correlated!)

    Do you think that interactions online helped push this over the edge from a regular gathering to a violent event? Do you think it’s possible that they might have started out with violent intentions? For instance, in the recent London riots, many people were shown to be organizing their plans on Twitter and Facebook before actually acting them out.

    1. Anne Schless

      Hi James,

      Thank you for responding to my blog post. Once it had become clear that as many as 30,000 people had responded to the party invitation, the city council and police released statements to the media where they asked the people who were planning on going, not to come. If they did they come to Haren, the police would not allow the people to enter the city.

      I do believe that this could have triggered the attention of a more aggressive and violence seeking person and therefore the crowd might have been a bit more eager to behave violently and destructive. Although there might have been more tension in the air, I also believe that there were people present that didn’t condone the actions of the rioters, but they didn’t do anything about it and just watched. This might be more disturbing than the fact that people would go to a city or party with violent intentions. Where perhaps the police and city council should have thought twice about proclaiming they would send everyone away who would come to Haren and that no one was welcome, I do think awareness should be raised about what causes us to be inactive in a group setting, so maybe next time we will think twice about looking on when others destroy property that is not their own.


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