Stepping up or stepping away

By Cheryl Staats, Research Associate,

Of the endless reality TV shows competing for viewership, the one I find most intriguing is What Would You Do?, a hidden camera series on ABC.  The provocative show uses hidden cameras and actors in public settings to play out scenarios that involve breaking social norms and/or highlighting cultural stereotypes.  As implied in the show’s title, members of the unsuspecting general public witness these scenarios, and cameras capture their responses (or lack thereof) to the staged ethical and/or social quandary in which they find themselves.  The segments conclude when show’s host, John Quiñones, steps into the scene to debrief the unsuspecting participants on the ruse and solicit further insights into why they responded as they did.  The sociologically fascinating show encourages viewers to speak up on behalf of others when they witness people experiencing injustices or indignities.

In some cases, the scenarios directly focus on race.  One such episode, ‘Shopping While Black,’ involves a Black female confederate shopping at an upscale clothing boutique being overtly racially profiled and harassed by store personnel, all of whom are portrayed by actors.  The intense episode shows the store security guard selectively frisking the targeted shopper, with store clerks making less-than-subtle remarks about “her kind” of person appearing “suspicious” in an effort to draw attention from other customers.  Of the over 100 people who witnessed the harassment, less than twenty chose to intervene on behalf of the targeted shopper.

Other times, the show presents dilemmas that are not overly racial in nature, but by performing identical scenarios using actors of different races, the general public often responds in dramatically different ways.  One such episode involved a teenage male actor who seemingly was attempting to steal a bicycle that was chained to a street sign alongside a bike path.  When the actor was white, most folks walked right on by, even when he started to use equipment such as an electric saw to try to free the bike.  In the span of one hour, over 100 people witnessed the scenario, with only two people choosing to question whether he owned the bike.  When the same scene was staged later using a Black actor whose age and clothing aligned with that of the white actor, the Black teen was immediately confronted and onlookers converged, calling the police and yelling at the teen for attempting to steal the bike.  John Quiñones’ interviews with those who intervened when the suspect was Black produced a common theme:  all felt that intervening was the right thing to do and that justice was colorblind.

While the What Would You Do? scenarios are generally quite believable, I am often left wondering how much of an effect the show has.  Surely the individuals who are filmed are likely to consider (and, depending on their reaction, reconsider) how and why they responded as they did.  But to what extent do viewers mentally place themselves in the given scenario and seriously consider what their own response would have been, as opposed to passively assuming that they would have done the right thing?  And even when they do, how accurate are these predictions?

It is clearly easier to feel confident in one’s abilities to stand up to racism and other injustices watching from afar in the comfort of one’s own dwelling.  In fact, research indicates that while people predict they will react strongly to racist words and acts, their actual responses are considerably more muted.  People tend to overestimate the strength of their emotional reactions and instead disregard hurtful remarks as harmless or just a joke.  Yale psychologist John Dovidio notes, “People expect to feel much more emotion than they actually do.  We are good at rationalizing responses.  If there are certain costs — we don’t want to get involved, maybe because we aren’t quite as committed to equality as we thought we were — then we go through a series of rationalizations: ‘Maybe it wasn’t that bad.’  That’s the danger — that we explain everything away.  It justifies our behavior.”  Due to the implicit bias of affective forecasting, the best of predicted intentions often hold little weight when they only result in displays of indifference in real life.

Moreover, the show tends to gloss over the factors that influence whether or not people intervene.  The debrief interviews occasionally provide insights into what considerations people made that influenced how they responded.  However, as anyone who has been in an uncomfortable situation knows, the decision to speak up is often a complex calculated risk.  People who witness the scenarios are unaware that what they are observing is carefully staged and being performed by actors; thus, as in real life, witnesses have no way of predicting how the offending person will react to being challenged or confronted.  The possible vulnerabilities and other considerations associated with intervening are generally not emphasized, as the show operates within a much more absolute approach:  intervene or not.

Despite these shortcomings, the show successfully highlights many cultural norms and stereotypes while perpetually urging people to do the right thing.  The underlying message bears repeating.  Speak up when you witness injustices, and not just because you never know when John Quiñones may be waiting around the corner.