The relation between bystanders’ behavioral reactivity to distress and later helping behavior during a violent conflict in virtual reality


The occurrence of helping behavior is thought to be automatically triggered by reflexive reactions and promoted by intuitive decisions. Here, we studied whether reflexive reactions to an emergency situation are associated with later helping behavior in a different situation, a violent conflict. First, 29 male supporters of F.C. Barcelona performed a cued-reaction time task with a low and high cognitive load manipulation, to tap into reflexive and reflective processes respectively, during the observation of an emergency. Next, participants entered a bar in Virtual Reality and had a conversation with a virtual fellow supporter. During this conversation, a virtual Real Madrid supporter entered and started an aggressive argument with the fellow supporter that escalated into a physical fight. Verbal and physical interventions of the participant served as measures of helping behavior. Results showed that faster responses to an emergency situation during low, but not during high cognitive load, were associated with more interventions during the violent conflict. However, a tendency to describe the decision to act during the violent conflict as intuitive and reflex-like was related to more interventions. Further analyses revealed that a disposition to experience sympathy, other-oriented feelings during distressful situations, was related to self-reported intuitive decision-making, a reduced distance to the perpetrator, and higher in the intervening participants. Taken together, these results shed new light on helping behavior and are consistent with the notion of a motivational system in which the act of helping is dependent on a complex interplay between intuitive, reflexive and deliberate, reflective processes.