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How Groups Prevent Violence: Analysing CCTV footage of night-time violence

01/05/2010 11:07:36

When it comes to thinking about violence and anti-social behaviour, groups of drinkers out at night tend to get a bad press. A combination of excess alcohol and the negative influence of the group is believed to lead to anti-social behaviour.

However, a new study by researchers at Lancaster University suggests that, in potentially violent situations, group members spend most of their time trying to stop perpetrators from acting violently. Violence is most likely to be prevented if a number of group members intervene and each supports the other’s intervention.

Psychologists Mark Levine, Paul Taylor and Rachel Best carried out an analysis of CCTV footage of drinkers in a city centre. In each of the 42 incidents they analysed, the perpetrator, the victim and the bystanders were identified. They then recorded the behaviours of each person in turn, and whether they were trying to escalate or de-escalate the violence. Their results showed that:

Contrary to popular belief, group members are trying to bring aggressive behaviour under control rather than encourage violence.

Contrary to conventional psychological wisdom, larger groups did not result in more aggressive (or anti-social) behaviour. In fact, as group size increased, the group members attempted significantly more de-escalating (or prosocial) behaviours than anti-social behaviours.

If only one person tries to intervene (even though other people are present) then incidents tend to end in violence. When multiple group members intervene in a mutually supportive way, then violence tends to be prevented.

Taken together, the evidence shows that groups are trying to bring aggressive behaviour under control; that increasing group size leads to a greater expression of this norm against the use of violence, and that successful violence prevention requires the co-ordinated action of the group rather than the action of a single powerful individual.

Dr Mark Levine explained :“For most people, violence is hard, not easy. Groups try to prevent violence from happening or stop it getting out of control. Despite the likelihood of having consumed alcohol, and despite the threat of being victims of violence themselves – the people in our study were still trying to behave in a socially responsible way. Moreover, they were more likely to do so as the size of the group increased.”

He added: “When it comes to practical strategies for tackling public violence, we should think about groups as part of the solution and not part of the problem. We should harness the power of the group to produce pro-social behaviour. There is plenty of evidence that group members already try to take responsibility for the behaviour of people in the group. We need to support groups to discourage those in their midst who are thinking about behaving in a violent or anti-social way.”

This research was supported by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) awarded to Mark Levine.