Students Staff

27 November 2015

Would you help others in an emergency?

Man escaping from a building

The act of chivalry is far from dead when it comes to people who selflessly help others in an emergency, according to new research from the University of Essex.

The study, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, looked at how people behaved when they were faced with having to evacuate a building in an emergency as part of an interactive computer game.

The problem-solving evacuation game investigated who would be prepared to take risks and stop to help someone who had helped them. The game was designed by Essex maths student Jordan Miller, a co-author on the paper, as part of his third year undergraduate capstone research project.

The game was put into practice last year when Professor Edward Codling, from the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Essex, and Dr Nikolai Bode, from the University of Bristol, recruited over 630 museum visitors to take part in the experiment as part of the Live Science programme at the Science Museum in London.

The results of the experiment showed that people were less likely to help others if it would take them longer to do so, and that those who tried to help once were more likely to help again later.

“We confirmed that in a situation with uncertain risks people gradually helped less and less as they had to work harder to do so,” explained Dr Bode. “Some people also seemed more eager to help than others: those who tried to help early on in the game were subsequently more likely to help on a later occasion as well.”

Interestingly, the results also appear to show that men, particularly young men, were more likely to take risks to help others escape. “This is was an unexpected result but we don’t know for certain what causes this effect,” explained Professor Codling. “One possible explanation is that young men are used to solving problems in a computer game situation. Or the result could be because young men are more likely to take risks in order to impress others, rather than there being an inherent difference between how likely men and women are to help others.”

Professor Codling added that Jordan’s successful input into the project was a real cause for celebration. “It is very rare for an undergraduate student to be a co-author on a full journal paper. The original idea for the experiment was Jordan’s and he should be really proud of what he has achieved. This is a great example of the research-led teaching approach we have adopted within our department and illustrates how our students can make a significant contribution towards solving real research problems.”

Jordan, who now works as a maths teacher, said: “My undergraduate project was a fantastic opportunity to take part in real research and I am proud that we have able to turn it into a fully published paper. The skills and experience I gained during the project have been really helpful in my new career - I even discussed the project during my successful job interview last year!”

Georgeenia Ariaratnam, of the Science Museum, said: “Since 2010 we have hosted 24 scientific groups, and over 35,000 visitors have participated in their experiments. Live Science is a great way for visitors to see how scientific experiments are performed and for scientists to collect data to inform interesting and important studies like this one.”

This research forms part of an ongoing collaboration between Professor Codling and Dr Bode, who are working with human behaviour experts such as Dr Rick O’Gorman, from the Department of Psychology at Essex and also a co-author on the paper, in order to undertake research into how human crowds behave with the aim of improving crowd management and safety in evacuations.

...more news releases