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Why Did People Help at the Beach but not at the Lake?
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Two dramatic incidents have ties to both social and personality psychology:

Beachgoers Form Human Chain

Beachgoers saw a family in trouble and after a short time 70 or so of them formed a human chain to bring them to safety.



Teens Videotaped And Mocked A Disabled Man Drowning

5 teen boys watch a man drown, take a video of the incident and make fun of him.  None of them even called 911.


Why the Difference?

These are two very different incidents, but here are a connections from psychological theory:

  1. Clear need for help ("Situational Ambiguity"): helping behavior occurs when it is clear to bystanders what is going on and that assistance is needed. Present in both incidents.
  2. Perceived Cost: how much personal danger is there to the bystander if he/she takes action to help? Bystanders at the beach probably felt a higher perceived cost - not even the police who were present took the action of swimming out to those in need because of the danger of rip tides. The lake waters were calm - though we do not know if the bystanders considered themselves good swimmers.  would expect helping would more readily occur at the lake.
  3. Similarity: "People are more willing to help others whom they perceive to be similar to themselves (Psychology, Nevid, 2015). There was much greater diversity of age, gender and and ethnicity among the bystanders at the beach than at the lake. One would expect greater likelihood of helping at the lake.
  4. Diffusion of Responsibility: this probably occurred in both situations: both beachgoers and the 5 boys at the lake probably looked at each other to see if anyone else was going to take action. Present in both incidents, but because there were more people at the beach, one would expect this effect to be lower at the lake. Prediction: higher likelihood of helping at the lake.
  5. Gender: women are more likely to get help than men. Since women were among those in need at the beach one would expect that more helping at the beach. 
  6. Presence of an Authority Figure: people are less likely to help if someone with authority (police) or skills (ex: nurse) is present. At the beach, police were present, but bystanders saw that they were not intending to take action — this should decrease a bystander’s willingness to help. There was also no authority present at the lake, so you would think that would increase the likelihood that one of the bystanders would help. Prediction: greater likelihood of helping at the beach.

Why didn't helping occur at the lake?

1. Lack of a skilled and extroverted role model: the beach had one key factor going for it: swimmer Jessica Simmons who said in her Facebook post:

“These people are not drowning today,” Jessica Simmons thought, she told the Panama City News Herald. “It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.”

She was a strong swimmer and fearless in the face of adversity.1

So while the police did not act at the beach, there was a strong role model (Extraversion on the Big 5 personality model) who made it clear that nothing was going to stop her from helping. There was no role model at the beach. Erik Erikson might say that Ms. Simmons helped because she's in the Generativity stage, whereas the teenage boys are in the Identity vs. Role Confusion stage.

The oldest boy was the role model: the oldest boy was very involved in the taunting of the drowning man.  The younger boys were probably using him as their model of what to do - and not do. 

2. Lack of Empathy:  we are more likely to help people when we can empathize with their predicament. We see from the fact that the teen boys taunted and laughed at the drowning man that there was no empathy for his predicament. Why not? There may have been marijuana involved, which could have dulled their sense of empathy.

3. Moral Perspective: perhaps this is a place to discuss Carol Gilligan's contribution to our thoughts regarding morality: women - like Jessica Simmons - tend to be more oriented toward strengthening the connections between people more so than about what Kohlberg would suggest for the boys at the lake (their only concern is about whether they could get in trouble for what they're doing).

Other reasons? I'd be happy to read your thoughts in the comment area below.

NOTE: Cengage is committed to helping psychology instructors bring life events like this one into the classroom. Feel free to use this material as you wish, though a link to this site is appreciated.  

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Martinez said that when the teens were interviewed, one had no remorse at all. She said, “There was no remorse, only a smirk.” She said, “The kids were at the park that day smoking marijuana and apparently saw him walk into the water. He walked in on his own. They were watching him. They just started recording what happened and watched until he died. Everybody is just horrified by this.”2

  1. Rip currents swept away a Florida family. Then dozens of beachgoers formed a human chain. - The Washington Post, Rip currents swept away a Florida family. Then beachgoers formed a human chain.,
  2. DEPRAVED: Teens Videotaped And Mocked A Disabled Man Drowning | Daily Wire, DEPRAVED: Teens Videotaped And Mocked A Disabled Man Drowning,



1 Comment



As the parent of a strong willed teenage daughter, I enjoyed this article. She worked at a camp with a lake all summer and while not a strong swimmer herself she was life jackeet obsessed with the kids.  After spending time with teenagers, sadly I can see the situation at the lake repeating itself.  What I now want to do is ask my daughter to privately read this and comment.   So thanks for sharing.