Have you ever encountered a situation in a public place that you thought warranted action, but weren't sure what type? Recent polling by YouGov explores how Americans think a person should react as a bystander in various scenarios, as well as how they believe they themselves would react. The results show that majorities of Americans believe some form of intervention – physical, verbal, or calling 911 – is appropriate in all 10 of the hypothetical scenarios asked about, which include a clerk's confrontation with an unmasked shopper and an instance of domestic violence.
What do Americans think bystanders should do in various scenarios?
The poll presented Americans with 10 hypothetical scenarios occurring in a public place and asked them how they think a bystander should react. Respondents were instructed to "select all that apply" out of four options, including physically intervening, verbally intervening, calling 911, or doing nothing.
Of the 10 scenarios asked about, three stand out as most likely to be perceived as warranting physical intervention: a man making sexual advances towards a severely intoxicated woman (42% say this warrants physical intervention), a person violently kicking their dog (42%), and a man hitting his female partner (41%).
The largest share of people (61%) think a verbal response is warranted in a different situation: one that involves a person yelling slurs at someone who is a racial minority. Half (51%) also say a person should verbally intervene if they encounter someone standing on the ledge of a bridge seemingly contemplating suicide. (About as many call for verbal interventions for the sexual-advances and dog-kicking scenarios: 53% each.)
At least half of people think bystanders should call 911 in each of six of the 10 scenarios, including situations involving a person who is homeless and potentially in need of medical help (81% say this warrants calling 911), the person on the bridge seemingly contemplating suicide (73%), a man hitting his female partner (68%), an intoxicated person about to drive (64%), a police officer inflicting unnecessary pain on someone (52%), and the dog being kicked (50%). Slightly less than half of people (45%) say a person should call 911 if they encounter a man making sexual advances toward a severely intoxicated woman.
Two scenarios stand out as least likely to warrant a response of any type, with about 40% saying a person should "do nothing": a loud mask-related confrontation between a store clerk and a shopper (43%) and a parent slapping their young child who is misbehaving (40%).
We also identify gender differences in how men and women say a person should react in the aforementioned scenarios. In each of the 10 situations, women are more likely than men to say the situation warrants some form of intervention. Women are especially more likely than men to say that the situations asked about warrant a bystander calling 911. Women are more likely than men to say a person should call 911 if they encounter:
- A man making sexual advances toward a severely intoxicated woman (+19 percentage points)
- A man hitting his female partner (+16)
- A person violently kicking their dog (+14)
- A police officer inflicting what appears to be unnecessary pain on a person they're arresting (+11)
- A person standing on the ledge of a bridge seemingly contemplating suicide (+8)
How do Americans think they personally would react as a bystander in various scenarios?
After asking Americans how they think people in general should react to various bystander scenarios, we then asked what they personally would do in the same situations. Most people responded similarly to this set of questions as they did to the prior set, with a few slight differences. Americans are 7 percentage points less likely to say they would personally physically intervene if they encountered a man hitting his female partner than to say a bystander in general should do this. They are also 5 percentage points less likely to say they'd physically intervene in a potential sexual assault of a woman who appears to be severely intoxicated than they are to say a person should generally do this.
We find similar gender gaps on the question of how someone would personally respond to scenarios as on the question of how people generally should respond to them. One notable difference is in how men and women say they would respond to a man hitting his female partner. When asked generally, there is a 14-percentage-point gap between the share of men (48%) and women (34%) who say a person should physically intervene in this situation. When asked how they personally would respond, the gap grows to 18 points; the share of men who say they would physically intervene increases to 44%, while the share of women drops to 26%.
— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article.
This poll was conducted on September 27 - 30, 2022, among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.
Image: Adobe Stock (oneinchpunch)