Hidden-camera test of kindness: Good idea, but unfair prank

Yesterday morning I learned of a new video that’s making the rounds on social media, a hidden-camera exercise comparing people’s reactions to two individuals on crutches who “fall” on a city street.

Of course I watched it, thinking that I’d be outraged and share it so I could rail against the callousness of my fellow man. Ah, not so fast.

The video: Mr. Crutches A is a well-dressed young man who falls numerous times and is, of course, immediately helped to his feet by passersby each time.

Mr. Crutches B is made up to look “homeless” (don’t all homeless look alike?) — hood over the head, oversized coat, carrying a rumpled sleeping bag, etc. —  and of course, falls and is ignored time and again. Some people even take pains to walk around him at a “safe” distance.

As effective and as well-intentioned as it is, the video was an unfair experiment.

The well-dressed man fell relatively gently, quietly to the pavement. There was nothing “threatening” about him. His face showed distress, and he looked truly helpless, a victim.

The “homeless” person, however, fell violently to the pavement, his possessions scattering every which way. On some falls, he appears to be writhing in pain, whereas the businessman did not. But here’s crucial failing: in most cases, you can’t see the “homeless” person’s face.

Passersby couldn’t determine the person’s emotional state at that moment, and therefore their instinct told them it wasn’t safe to intervene. One person did help the “homeless” faller, but if you watch the video, you’ll see that it’s a setup.

It’s fine to appeal to people’s emotions, to test their capacity for kindness, but please, play it fair and square. As it is, the video risks a negative backlash. It just may reinforce people’s aversion to helping someone who looks “homeless” or different in any respect. (Believe it or not, there are a lot of “homeless prank” videos on YouTube.)

I’m not sure I would rush to the aid of someone whose face I couldn’t see — and gender or race have absolutely nothing to do with it. I’d like to think I would make sure the “homeless” person was OK, even if that meant calling 911 and waiting until help arrived.

So how about a do-over on the video? Hire a real homeless person, or at least someone whose face can be seen, and who falls exactly the same as the “control subject” in the experiment.

I commend the folks at Model Pranksters for creating this video. In a little over a month, it has gotten more than 5 1/2 million views on YouTube. It’s safe to say it has made some viewers stop and think about what they would have done.

A footnote: As a much more skilled writer than I says on occasion, “I’m just Gaelic enough” to believe in a higher power that sends us a cosmic sign now and then.

Yesterday, several hours after watching the “crutches” video, I was walking back to my downtown office after an interview. I saw a well-dressed man crossing the street, stumble — and do a face plant. Hard. Right in the middle of the crosswalk, with no one near him. I cannot make this stuff up.

He wore a stylish full-length coat and a fine fedora, and before he could pick himself right back up — which he did — I started looking for the hidden cameras. I yelled across the street, “Are you OK?” He brushed off the front of his coat, uttered an embarrassed “Whoa!” and went on his way.

I took it as a sign. Of what, who knows …


About Jim McKeever

Writer, father, runner, advocate based in Central New York.
This entry was posted in Homeless, hunger, Irish Investigations, peace, poverty, religion, role models and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Hidden-camera test of kindness: Good idea, but unfair prank

  1. chmjr2 says:

    Would not want a hidden camera around me. Some days I am a saint, others not so much. It would be my luck to get caught on a day when I am not up to my best.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim McKeever says:

    Agreed, Charles. The thing is, we’re probably seen on camera day in and day out more than we realize — walking, driving, shopping, etc.


  3. I saw the video too Jim and something about it bothered me, I couldn’t put my finger on it, perhaps you have hit on the answer. This post reminds me of something that happened to me a few years back. Now I have something to write about for my Hump Day Chronicles post – thank you Jim!
    Diana xo

    Liked by 1 person

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  5. I’ve been seeing this video around Jim. Something about this, and one other video “experiment” bothered me as well. And I think you defined it for me. It was the unfairness or difference in the set up. I spent nearly twenty years taking and teaching self defense. I would like to think I would come to the aide of anyone in distress. But I have also taught many many a person caution for the very things you mention. In this video, and in another. The not seeing the face would be something that concerned me. In another the person asking for food was pretty assertive (in my opinion) and I felt that the manner he was asking was off putting more than the actual request for food was.

    And I hope the street crossing Fedora wearer was okay. ;(

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jim McKeever says:

      Thanks, Colleen … I think the filmmakers would have gotten a more accurate (and slightly more positive) picture of our society of they had played it straight. You can prove a point without resorting to bogus theatrics. I’m sure they would have gotten a mix of apathy and kindness that more accurately reflects human nature. Staging the fall in front of the real homeless person seriously damaged their credibility. And I wonder if that guy was an actor, too. … Yeah, the guy in the fedora who fell that day — that was just very strange. Jim


  6. markbialczak says:

    I’m against this kind of video set up for making any kind of a point, Jim. I always have the feeling it’s coming from a position of superiority rather than constructive instruction. Worse yet are the MTV style Jackass supposed pure humor videos. And yet when ABC 20/20 puts on these Hidden Camera What Would You Do shows, there I am stopping in mid-surf, gawking and rather enjoying what I take to be the constructive instruction.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jim McKeever says:

    Good point, Mark … I remember watching a video (20/20, I’m pretty sure) during a diversity training, in which a hidden camera was focused on different people messing with a locked bicycle in a park. Passersby assumed, when the bike-person was white, that everything was OK and the person was just having trouble with the bike lock. When the person was black, some passersby challenged him, assuming he was trying to steal it. That video is OK in my book, because the control group acted the same way as the experimental group, as it were. There were no extra, staged theatrics. Thanks for your thoughts … Jim


  8. Jim … I also am concerned about videos of this type. People should do what’s right without double checking to see if they’re on Candid Camera. Like Diana, I might write about this and link back to you. Great write up. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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  10. Not a fan of hidden camera events all seem too staged. I guess in the end this post has reminded me to help my fellow man in pain, no matter who he is. Thanks Jim.

    Liked by 1 person

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