Veteran news correspondent John Quiñones sees it all while waiting in the wings. He gets a firsthand look at what happens when people think nobody's watching—and it's not always pretty. "I've gotten to see very inspiring folks who do the right thing and then others who just walk away from situations," he says. "It's allowed me to put myself in the position of the victim. And once you do that, it's hard to turn away from a person in distress, a person in need, a person in trouble."
While many of the men who observe the scene simply keep walking, John notes that many women feel obligated to stop. One after another, women step up to give the mean girls a piece of their minds. Two strangers even work in tandem—one comforts the victim while the other sets the mean girls straight. Although the actors were told to keep their language clean, some of the women who stop have no qualms about cursing and even revert to mean girls themselves by mocking the girls.
At first, Maggie walked away from the situation because she had children with her. Once they were safe, she went back to intervene. "My friend called security, and then I went back to try to stop the yelling," she says. "I was scared for the girl. I thought they might punch her or hit her or slap her."
Maggie feels she did the right thing by getting involved but in hindsight may have toned it down. "I think under a microscope I'm a little embarrassed," she says. "Maybe I should have been calmer, but it's who I am."
Lisa agrees and says she remembers being bullied in junior high school. "I definitely felt like that girl that was sitting there at the bench," she says.
John thinks the reason more women stepped in than men could be because they didn't want the fight to become physical. "That might be just an excuse, but men will tell you, 'If I step in, it could well lead to fisticuffs,'" he says. However, Dr. Keating says many women feel that words can hurt more than fists.
"Words hurt for a long, long time. Longer than a bruise," she says. "It's fascinating that boys' aggression may involve fisticuffs, may involve physical aggression. But really, the lasting mental impression is just as important because what you're learning from that kind of an episode is that you're powerless, you're rejected, and that affects how we feel about ourselves."
For the next scenario, the What Would You Do? crew heads to a roadside bakery in Texas for an experiment on prejudice and patriotism. Both workers behind the counter are actors. When a Muslim actress comes into the store, the male clerk verbally assaults her. "You've got to take your business elsewhere. We don't serve your kind here," he says. "Get back on the camel and go back wherever you came from." While the Muslim woman continues to be assaulted with blatant bigotry, several customers in the bakery barely look up.
When no one will speak up for her, the Muslim woman asks another customer if he will order an apple strudel for her. The man stumbles over his words, reluctant to help. After leaving the bakery, John approaches the customer to see why he wouldn't step in. "Me, speak up for her?" he says. "Well, if he would try to do some harm to her or something, then I would have."
Other customers in the bakery not only ignore the Muslim woman, but they actually applaud the racist clerk. "Hooray for you," one man says. "I think that's the first time I've ever seen that. Good job. Appreciate it."
Of all of the customers who speak up, the most persistent are two women named Alison and Jasmeen. "You're really offensive and disgusting," Alison says. Jasmeen is not dressed in traditional clothes but points out that she is also Muslim. "She is my culture," she says. "So you're ready to serve me, but you're not ready to serve her?" Instead of leaving in anger, the women stand their ground and ask to speak with a manager.
Although Alison wasn't afraid to speak up, she's shocked that other customers refused to come to the woman's aid. "Some of my closest friends are Middle Eastern, and it's horrible to see the kind of discrimination they experience on a regular basis," she says. "I think this country can do better than that."
John says this experiment also struck a nerve with him. After approaching one of the men who supported the racist clerk, John says the man told him, "John Quiñones, you are not an American."
"My family's been in Texas for six generations, and it reminded me of what my Mexican father used to tell me," John says. "He used to pick cotton in South Texas. He said there used to be signs in some of the restaurants [saying,] 'No Mexicans or dogs allowed inside.' Unfortunately, some of those remnants are still there."
The crew sets up in New York's Greenwich Village, where David and Mary Ellen, a devoted couple of four years, live together. David and Mary Ellen are both in on the experiment—but Mary Ellen's best friend, Kiley, is not.
David and an actress pretending to be his date are shown to a cozy table in an Italian restaurant just before Kiley takes her seat in the same restaurant. Thanks to a strategically placed mirror, Kiley has a clear view of David and his date. At first, Kiley insists to her friend that the man they see can't be David...but after time, she can no longer deny it. Kiley decides to send a warning text to David: "If it is you, I am here and Mary Ellen is on her way."
As part of the plan, David and the actress are told to look embarrassed and leave the restaurant.
Kiley's moment of truth is here. "Mary, we have to talk to you," she says. "When we got here, David was here with someone else."
Though Mary Ellen reacts in disbelief, Kiley stands her ground. "I knew it was him because I texted him, and I saw him take out his phone," she says. "The look on his face said, 'I have to get out of here right now.'"
Finally, John Quiñones reveals the truth to Kiley, telling her the scenario was staged and that she's been a part of an experiment about cheating.
Kiley says she knew right away that she was going to have to tell Mary Ellen about David's cheating, but she didn't necessarily know when or how. "But when [Mary Ellen] got there and it came down to it, I just couldn't keep it in," she says. "It was an emotional roller coaster."
Dr. Keating says that because Mary Ellen and Kiley are such close friends, Kiley felt burdened by the bad news she had to share. "In this situation, it might be useful to ask yourself which mistake you would rather make," she says. "Would you rather tell the truth and have it be painful? Or would you rather cloak the truth and perhaps undermine the intimacy you have in your friendship?"
Two actors spend an entire day in the park recreating this scenario. During the five-hour experiment, many people ask the couple to "take it somewhere else," but only one of 58 bystanders stop to take the woman to safety.
"I didn't see a choice," Tammy says. "In my mind, it was something I had to do."
After Tammy learned the fight between the couple was a staged experiment, she wrote an e-mail to Oprah explaining her decision to intervene. "I've come to realize that when I don't walk through my fears to do what I believe is the right thing, I actually feel worse because I will beat myself up about it for days, weeks, maybe longer," Tammy wrote. "When I am able to face my fears, I feel better about not only myself but the outcome of the action."
According to John, bystanders react differently in this scenario depending on the race of the couple. "We've tried this with white couples before, and we never heard people say, 'Take it somewhere else,'" he says. "They told the African-American couple, 'Look, this is neither the time nor the place.' In other words, 'It's okay if you beat her in the privacy of your home.'" John also says bystanders are more reluctant to stop when the abuser is African-American.
On a busy street in a New Jersey suburb, many people try to stop Jake, an apparently drunken man, from getting in the car. When Jake, who is really an actor hired by What Would You Do?, says he needs to get to a party, bystanders threaten to call the police and plead with him not drive.
One woman—another complete stranger—invites Jake to get a cup of coffee in order to get him off the road. When she sees a child's car seat in his backseat, she uses a personal memory to appeal to him. "I have a son who's 27 years old," she says. "His father was murdered when he was 9 years old. Every day, I wake up and it hurts that my child had to grow up without a father. Do you want that?"
Dr. Keating says this experiment is especially telling because it proves there is strength in numbers. "It shows teamwork and how incredibly powerful you can be if you have a plan. Taking the keys away was a great idea," she says. "When one person in a room responds, the others say, 'Yes, we need to do something.'"
The second factor, Dr. Keating says, is empathy. "When you empathize with the victim of aggression, it creates a whole different reason for you to take responsibility and try to do something," she says. "Unfortunately, the psychology of human beings is often that if we perceive someone to be different from ourselves, we treat them differently and oftentimes unfairly."