Researchers Set Up 'Candid Camera' To Test People's Empathy and Altruism

When you see a stranger in some kind of hardship, how do you react? Researchers carried out a rare study in a real-life setting to assess the relationship between empathy and altruism. 

People remain at the beach near two corpses after the collapse of a bicycle track in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)
People remain at the beach near two corpses after the collapse of a bicycle track in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)

When you see a stranger in some kind of hardship, how do you react? What goes through your mind when you consider whether to help this person? Researchers, led by psychologist Richard Bethlehem of the University of Cambridge, carried out a rare study in a real-life setting, and found that your level of empathy is related to your altruism and whether you'd get involved in a stranger's problem.


The scientists staged a hidden-camera style situation where passersby were given an opportunity to help a cyclist who supposedly had an accident. Regardless of the choice they made, researchers would approach these people afterwards, asking them to take a "memory test". It was important for them to conceal the true aims of the study to get a more honest reaction.

Those who agreed to participate were then given a series of questions and sent questionnaires to gauge their empathy levels as well as possible autistic traits.

1067 walked by the researchers, with about 7% actually helping the cyclist. Of the 55 people who then agreed to be in the study, 29% were those who helped the cyclist.

Credit: R. Bethlehem

Analyzing participant data, researchers concluded that empathy scores were related to altruistic behavior – those with higher empathy were also those who helped the cyclist. Their average empathy score was 56/80 while the non-helpers got 20/80.

The reason researchers also looked at autism spectrum scores is because earlier research indicated that people who had more autistic traits were less likely to be altruistic. But the new scores did not show such a correlation. In fact, a person who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder was one of those who helped the cyclist. 

One other obvious (and rather sad) conclusion from the study is that most people don't stop to help a stranger in distress. But those with more empathy are more likely to do so.

“The implication of the present study is that within any institution (even perhaps extreme inhumane institutions such as those under the Nazi regime), there will be individual differences in how people within the institution respond, and that some of this variation in helping behavior is accounted for by where on the empathy dimension the individual is situated,” wrote the researchers.

Check out the new open access study here in Social Neuroscience.


How New York's largest hospital system is predicting COVID-19 spikes

Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.

Credit: Getty Images
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
  • The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
  • Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

3,000-pound Triceratops skull unearthed in South Dakota

"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.

Excavation of a triceratops skull in South Dakota.

Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
Surprising Science
  • The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
  • It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
  • Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Keep reading Show less

Dark matter axions possibly found near Magnificent 7 neutron stars

A new study proposes mysterious axions may be found in X-rays coming from a cluster of neutron stars.

A rendering of the XMM-Newton (X-ray multi-mirror mission) space telescope.

Credit: D. Ducros; ESA/XMM-Newton, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
Surprising Science
  • A study led by Berkeley Lab suggests axions may be present near neutron stars known as the Magnificent Seven.
  • The axions, theorized fundamental particles, could be found in the high-energy X-rays emitted from the stars.
  • Axions have yet to be observed directly and may be responsible for the elusive dark matter.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Put on a happy face? “Deep acting” associated with improved work life

    New research suggests you can't fake your emotional state to improve your work life — you have to feel it.

    Credit: Columbia Pictures
    Personal Growth
  • Deep acting is the work strategy of regulating your emotions to match a desired state.
  • New research suggests that deep acting reduces fatigue, improves trust, and advances goal progress over other regulation strategies.
  • Further research suggests learning to attune our emotions for deep acting is a beneficial work-life strategy.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Surprising Science

    World's oldest work of art found in a hidden Indonesian valley

    Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast