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YouTube: a digital library of human behavior

An  Orlando police officer is under internal investigation and has been reassigned after a YouTube video surfaced showing the officer berating a man during a disturbance call.

In a 2012 YouTube video of an attempted robbery in California, two robbers enter a Circle T Market. One carries an AK-47 assault rifle. Upon seeing them, the clerk behind the counter puts his hands up. Yet the store owner finds the weapon absurdly big and casually walks up to the robbers, laughing. His shoulders are relaxed and he points the palms of his hands up as if asking them whether they are serious. Both perpetrators are startled by this. One runs away, while the one with the AK-47 freezes; he is tackled and later arrested by police. The men had robbed numerous stores before.

More than 300 hours of video footage are uploaded every minute to YouTube, providing direct access to a variety of situations you might never otherwise witness. While there are ethical and privacy debates about all this video, the scientific potential can’t be ignored.

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Historically, researchers have had to rely on interviews, laboratory experiments and observation to study human behavior. But eyewitness testimony can be deeply flawed, and even accurate memories fade. People also tend to act differently under observation by a researcher than they do in real life. Real time video is a game-changer.

Videos can provide answers to important questions. What contributes to positive conversations, successful negotiations or a politician’s charm? Which situational dynamics allow teams to perform well together, whether in business, sport, law enforcement or the arts? Video is especially powerful when it captures rare events. How does a panicking crowd move? How does a revolution unfold? What do people really do during a natural disaster?

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What exactly do such videos allow us to observe that we could not see before? Take retail robbery as an example. Even clerks who have never been in a robbery before know the deal when someone enters the store with gun in hand. Most clerks fear for their lives during a robbery, and many suffer from post traumatic stress afterward. Yet studies conducted decades ago by criminologists David Luckenbill and Charles Wellford and others showed that about one-third of clerks do not comply, and numerous robberies fail. Seems impossible — until you see it.

Today, videos show the clue to the puzzle can be found in the situational dynamic of the robbery. CCTV recordings uploaded online show us that in those incidents where the robber is able to get the money, both the clerk and the robber act in accordance with the robbery ritual and their respective roles —that of the confident, angry and dangerous perpetrator and the fearful, submissive clerk.

But if one of those involved does not show the behavior associated with their role, and breaks character, the ritual collapses. It can break down due to tiny actions by the perpetrator, even moves that seem barely noticeable, such as stumbling briefly.

If perpetrators are perceived as acting out of character, videos show clerks stop “believing” in them as a dangerous robber. When a perpetrator seems tentative, the clerk might take the dominant role, as in a robbery where a female clerk makes the indecisive robber wait saying in an annoyed tone that she is on the phone.

Children's advocates are condemning the tech industry's practice of using persuasive psychological techniques to keep kids glued to their screens.

In a store robbery in Florida uploaded by the New York Post, the armed perpetrator’s voice indicates sadness about committing the crime. He hardly looks his victim in the eye. As a result, the clerk doesn’t behave as a fearful robbery victim, but cheers him up. They talk about Jesus and discuss possible solutions to the robber’s financial problems. He leaves without the money.

Across such instances, we see clerks gain confidence and resist. This happens regardless of the clerk’s gender, the perpetrator’s experience level, or whether perpetrators look physically more or less fit than the clerk. Strong-looking armed male perpetrators stumble briefly and petite female clerks confidently attack and beat them until they run away. Once the illusion is broken, perpetrators seem to comply with their new role. They could shoot at the clerk, fire a warning shot or shout. Yet they tend to freeze, engage in conversations or run away.

Videos also show that people expect friends, parents, co-workers and pilots to play their respective roles. And sociologists have shown that when social routines fail and people behave out of character, we tend to perceive situations as strange and interactions as disconcerting and unsatisfying.

Of course, none of this means you should turn the tables if ever approached by a robber, but it does offer valuable insight into the human animal that we might not otherwise get. And it’s available to just about anyone, this digital library of human behavior.

Anne Nassauer is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology of the John F. Kennedy Institute at Freie Universität in Berlin. She originally wrote this essay for Zocalo Public Square.

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