Bystander Affiliation Influences Intervention Behaviour – A Virtual Reality Study

Aitor Rovira, Richard Southern, David Swapp, Claire Campbell, Jian J. Zhang, Mark Levine, Mel Slater

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Traditional work on bystander intervention in violent emergencies has found that the larger the group, the less the chance that any individual will intervene. Here we tested the impact on helping behaviour of the affiliation of the bystanders with respect to the participants. We recruited 40 male supporters of the UK Arsenal football club for a two-factor between groups study with 10 participants per group. Each participant spoke with a virtual human Arsenal supporter (V), the scenario displayed in a virtual reality system. During this conversation another virtual character (P), not an Arsenal fan, verbally abused V for being an Arsenal fan leading eventually to physical pushing. There was a group of three virtual bystanders who were all either Arsenal supporters indicated by their shirts, or football fans wearing unbranded shirts. These bystanders either encouraged the participant to intervene or dissuaded him. We recorded the number of times that participants intervened to help V during the aggression. We found that participants were more likely to intervene when the bystanders were out-group with respect to the participant. By comparing levels of intervention with a ‘baseline’ study (identical except for the presence of bystanders) we conclude that the presence of in-group bystanders decreases helping. We argue therefore that, other things being equal, diffusion of responsibility is more likely to be overcome when participant and victim share group membership, but bystanders do not. Our findings help to develop understanding of how diffusion of responsibility works by combining elements of both the bystander effect and the social identity approach to bystander behaviour.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-13
JournalSAGE Open
Issue number3
Early online date25 Aug 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Aug 2021


  • bystander effect
  • virtual reality
  • social identity approach
  • diffusion of responsibility
  • violence


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