What determines our likelihood to break up a bar fight? According to a new study published in Aggressive Behavior, most of us are more likely to intervene if we believe the conflict has the potential to become too violent. While this may sound like a no-brainer, our criteria for what constitutes violence are sometimes surprisingly counterintuitive.

Lead Author Michael Parks, who recently earned his doctorate in sociology from Pennsylvania State University, said that while bystanders break up about a third of all bar fights, they are more likely to intervene if the conflict is between two males.

"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," he explained. According to research, 65 percent of bar fights between males are effectively shut down by third parties, usually through non-violent methods like verbal intervention and physical separation.

That being said, conflicts between males are also subject to the highest number of aggressive interventions, a somewhat dubious method, where a bystander enters the conflict himself or herself as a third fighter.

Recognizing Violence

So far, so good. These statistics make sense: some bar fights are broken up, some are not, and a select few are joined by a third party.

But what about conflicts between a male and a female? These kinds of fights were the most common type of aggression studied by the researchers. However, they came with an abysmal intervention rate of 17 percent.

Despite the abhorrence and sad prevalence of such violence, bystanders were significantly less likely to intervene.

"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," said Parks.

"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," he continued.

The researchers theorized that in conflicts involving a man and a woman, a bystander may not recognize the potential for further violence, and therefore refrain from intervening altogether. Sadly, violence between men and women can be significantly more complex, and manifest in radically different ways than violence between two or more intoxicated men.

A Move Away From the Bystander Effect

That being said, the findings add to the mounting evidence that third party interventions in violent situations may not be as improbable as they were once thought to be.

"These results support recent research showing that the bystander effect may not be as dramatic or as strong as once thought in emergencies or dangerous situations," said Parks, referring to a phenomenon coined by social scientists in the 1960s. The "bystander effect" denotes a situation where everyone is certain that someone else will intervene, thus precluding any kind of intervention. Perhaps a public awareness of this effect has finally made an impact on the way we approach conflicts as third parties?

The study built on data gathered in 2004 by 148 trained observers, who, over 1,334 nights, recorded public behavior in 118 Toronto bars.

Source: Parks, M. J., Osgood, D. W., Felson, R. B., Wells, S., Graham, K. Third Party Involvement in Barroom Conflicts. Aggr. Behav. 2013.