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Stranger Danger: How Real Is It?

Ben Radford

April 7, 2006

If you saw an innocent child being kidnapped by a stranger, would you help?

That’s the question posed by security specialist Bill Stanton in a segment broadcast in late March on The Today Show. With the help of a seven-year-old named Rachelle, Stanton staged an abduction on a city street to see if the public would take action. Rachelle’s mother watched from a surveillance van as Stanton approached the girl, who stood alone in the middle of a sidewalk playing a video game. Stanton walked up to Rachelle and took her by the arm, saying things like, “There you are, young lady! You come with me,” while Rachelle protested, “No, no you’re not my daddy!”

Stanton and Rachelle repeated the scenario many times; as hidden cameras showed, rarely did bystanders intervene. Some kept walking, others glanced briefly at the scene, but few approached. The Today Show anchors called the results “shocking,” and to Stanton, Rachelle’s mother, the show’s producers (and probably to much of the audience), this seemed a clear and sad case of people reluctant to help someone in need.

“It’s frightening that no one will help,” Rachelle’s mother said. Sergeant Myron Joseph of the New Rochelle Police Department agreed with that interpretation: “It was unbelievable that people just didn’t want to get involved, they’d look, they’d turn around and see the commotion, but they just kept on walking.”

Yet there may be a very good, logical reason why people didn’t get involved, a reason completely missed by Stanton and the Today Show producers: the bystanders didn’t believe that they were actually seeing a child being abducted. Because the test “abduction” was poorly staged, it’s more likely that those who witnessed the scene simply (and correctly) recognized that the child was not in danger.

From the hidden camera footage that aired, it was clear that the girl they used was not an actress and didn’t act scared or terrified when Stanton approached her. Her protests sounded like a typical child’s whines instead of panicked pleas for help. The adult did not strike the child or hurt her in any way, and Rachelle didn’t scream, kick at, or fight off the adult supposedly trying to abduct her. In short (other than her words, which weren’t always clear) she didn’t do anything that would convince the average person that she genuinely did not know the adult and was in danger.

The problem isn’t the seven-year-old’s acting; the problem is that the “test” was badly conceived and conducted by Stanton and NBC News. The Today Show’s hidden camera test would be only valid if the bystanders actually believed that the child was in danger: If the bystanders sensed it wasn’t a real abduction attempt, then the “test” was worse than worthless, it was misleading.

There are ways that Stanton could have made the abduction more realistic and the test therefore more valid, for example using a better actress or having the girl kick and scream—actually acting like she was trying to get away. Or, to make it even clearer that the “abductor” was not the child’s father, Stanton could have mixed the races, for example using an Asian or black abductor or child——though this opens up racial issues NBC would probably prefer not to deal with.

The Today Show test is a good example of a demonstration that seems convincing on its face, yet has no scientific validity. Bad science led to bad journalism, and the Today Show’s audience was misinformed. If the purpose was to create alarmist, dramatic “hidden camera” video for television, then the test was adequate. But if the purpose was to actually see how the average person would react to seeing a real abduction, the “test” was a flawed failure.

The irony is that, despite being portrayed as unconcerned about a child’s safety, the people who did not intervene were correct in their assessment of the situation (it was not an actual child abduction), and they actually did the right thing by not calling the police (we would not want everyone who sees a protesting child being led away by an adult to call 911, as police would be flooded with thousands of false alarms every day).

But the likelihood that the bystanders recognized that the girl was not in real danger is only part of the answer. The other part is that—despite alarmist messages on news programs like the Today Show’s series— stranger abductions are very rare. A child is far more likely to die of a heart attack or be struck by lightning than be kidnapped by a stranger. Think about it this way: most adults have seen uncooperative or difficult children being grabbed by adults hundreds or thousands of times, while very few of us have witnessed an actual child abduction. So from the average person’s experience, we know that most of the time—virtually all of the time—when such a scenario occurs, it is harmless. So not intervening or calling police does not necessarily indicate indifference to others or a reluctance to get involved; instead it’s a logical, reasonable conclusion based on human psychology and experience.

Of course, one would hope that strangers would intervene in a real abduction (and there is evidence in the psychological literature that people do often avoid getting involved, especially if others are around), but the “shocking” hidden camera test offers no insights, and in fact misled Today Show viewers. The episode aired as part of a series called “Who Can You Trust?” and the show’s conclusion is exactly the opposite of the truth. The program suggested that strangers can’t be trusted, that they are likely to either kidnap a child or fail to stop a real abduction.

A 2000 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs reported that over three-quarters of kidnappings were committed by family members or acquaintances of the child. The study also found that children abducted by strangers were harmed less frequently than those taken by acquaintances. The fact of the matter is that children are in far more danger of being abused, kidnapped, or killed by their parents than any stranger on the street.

If Bill Stanton and The Today Show want to accurately report who children can usually trust, the truth is that children can trust almost everyone—and strangers moreso than their own parents.

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Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.