The Psychology Behind Intervening In Bar Fights
July 24, 2013

The Psychology Behind Intervening In Bar Fights

Michael Harper for - Your Universe Online

In the Wild West tales of old, cowboys and miners would routinely get into raucous bar brawls that often grew from the two original aggressors to include the entire saloon. Researchers from Penn State and the University of Ontario now say they understand bar fights and how they're able to swallow up more fighters as the scuffle continues. According to their research, bystanders are more likely to jump in to intervene when they believe the confrontation to be particularly dangerous or violent. Additionally, the research shows that lookers-on are more likely to intervene when two males are fighting, often worried that these fights could soon turn ugly. Bystanders will usually try to separate the fighters verbally, though sometimes these otherwise unaffiliated bar patrons will end up fighting with one another after trying to physically separate the two fighters. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism supported this study, which involved training volunteers to watch fights that took place in Canadian bars. The findings of this report are published in the current issue of Aggressive Behavior.

According to Michael Parks, a recent graduate from Penn State with a doctor's degree in sociology, bystanders will step in to intervene in about a third of all bar fights, most often occurring between two men.

It had previously been understood that people are less likely to intervene in violent altercations because they felt someone else would intervene first. The result of this non-action is referred to as the "Bystander Effect."

In this study, the majority of bystanders begin their interventions in a non-aggressive manner, either imploring the two fighters to take it easy or separating them altogether. These types of interventions most often occur when things are just getting heated, however. When the threat of severe violence and physical harm arise, fellow bar patrons are willing to step up their interventions to protect themselves and their fellow humans.

"Male-to-male aggression between two actors is usually considered by third parties to be the most severe, the type of incident that can lead to severe violence," explained Park in a statement for Penn State.

Not only are bystanders more likely to intervene in a fight between two men, these fights are also most likely to grow and swell to include other fighters.

The information gathered by the international research team found that the most common aggressive incidents occurred between men and women, but fewer people felt the need to intervene in these conflicts.

After gathering data from 1,057 violent incidents in Toronto bars in 2004, the researchers found only 17 percent of these men against women fights were broken up by fellow bar patrons.

Parks believes fewer people intervene in these scuffles because they don't believe that either party will become seriously harmed as a result.

"It seems a little upsetting that people didn't intervene in incidents that involved a man harassing a (woman), but the results showed that this was indeed the case," Parks said.

"Our data showed that this type of violence had the lowest level of severity, so one explanation for the lack of intervention in these incidents is that third parties perceived that the events won't escalate into higher levels of violence, something that does not have the potential to be dangerous or an emergency."