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Judgment Call: Blind woman in distress

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (NEWSCHANNEL 3) - What kind of judgment calls do you make when you think no one's watching?

Newschannel 3 is running a series of social experiments this month, using hidden cameras to put West Michigan to the test.
Every Monday, we'll unveil the results of those tests.  You may be surprised to see how people in your community responded to scenarios they thought were real.
In the first experiment, NewsChannel 3 partnered with a woman from Kalamazoo who is 100-percent blind.

Our crews instructed Betty Lujan Roberts to drop her walking cane during a stroll through Bronson Park during the lunchtime food truck rush.

Typically, if she drops her cane (or as she calls it, her magic wand), she is assertive enough to ask for help. 

For the purposes of this experiment, we instructed her not to speak up. 

The goal was to see if the people around her would lend a hand when she desperately needed it and how long it would take them to do so.

We set up some hidden cameras around the park, planted an undercover producer, wired up Betty and ran the test over the course of several hours.

In scenario number one, Betty dropped her cane in the middle of the park near a group of ladies eating lunch.

She felt around hopelessly with her foot for one minute, then two. 

Two women walked right by her. Then someone whizzed by on a scooter.

No one seemed to notice and our crews were about to abort this first attempt. 

Finally, after two minutes and 17 seconds, a man on a nearby bench felt compelled to jump in.

You know we just got to look out for other people, JT later told our cameras.

Borgess psychologist Bill Wenger says Betty's distance from bystanders may have impacted the response time in this case.

Sometimes we use a term called proxemics, which is how close you are to a situation, Wenger explains. The closer you get, the more it captures you to act in some way.

So in take two, we moved Betty closer to the food truck crowd and had her run the experiment again.

This time it only took 18 seconds for someone to see her distress and pick up her cane.

After that, our crew waited for a fresh crowd of people to pass through the park before attempting test number three.

That time, all it took was the sound of the stick drop for a woman ordering food to turn around and help.

I picked it up for her, handed it back to her, seemed like the right thing to do, Monica Hurley said in a post-experiment interview.

Wenger explains the psychology that often accompanies the good samaritan approach: When you see someone is uncomfortable, you become uncomfortable and you try to calm yourself down by helping this person.

In test number four, things became interesting.

Betty dropped her cane in the middle of the park and tapped around for it with her toes near a group of women eating and chatting out in the sunshine. 

One minute in, nobody came to her aid.

I think the bystander effect can be complex in terms of somebody else will help, Wenger notes.

Our crews instructed Betty to wander closer to the group, still feeling around for her cane and acting confused. 

She nearly walked into them and still they barely looked at her.

After two and a half minutes of struggle, Betty lost her bearings and decided to speak up to grab their attention.

Finally, one of the women retrieved the stick and handed it back to Betty.

In the fifth and final experiment, it only took 30 seconds for Bettys bad luck to catch a young mans eye.

James Heirman explained his actions saying, Its common courtesy, common decency. You see somebody in need, you ought to help them.

Overall, Betty told us she hopes the experiment gives valuable insight into how aware people are of their surroundings and how likely they are to help someone who is disabled.

I thought it was interesting, Betty says. I thought everybody responded really well. If they didn't respond, it's only because they didn't notice.