Hero or asshole?

a second post in the “grad school with benefits” series, in which psych phd coursework helps me figure life out

As some may recall, a few years ago I pulled a stranger to safety who had fallen on the train tracks and was being electrified by the third rail.  Someone filmed it, posted on youtube, and in the media interviews that followed, and in my own life, people kept asking me why I acted when other people didn’t.  A year or so later, I was on a ludicrous “panel of heroes” on the Dr. Drew show after an incident in New York, in which a man died on the subway tracks because nobody would come to his aid.  We were to explain what makes us so much better than other people.

For many reasons I’ve discussed, this is nonsense, but in my social psych readings for tomorrow, new light has been shed on this very question: “Why do some people act in emergencies when others don’t?”

In a 1968 paper, Latane and Darley note that most emergencies begin ambiguously.  A staggering man may be having a heart attack, or just drunk.  Smoke coming from a building may be a fire, or just steam.  In these ambiguous circumstances, we look around to get a clue from each other.  In so doing, a fascinating and circular social effect develops: “if each member of a group is, at the same time, trying to appear calm and also looking around at the other members to gauge their reactions, all members may be led (or misled) by each other to define the situation as less critical than they would if alone.”  This creates the bystander effect, where nobody is acting because nobody is acting.

So Latane and Darly did an experiment.  They had subjects fill out a dummy-survey in a waiting room and let some smoke come out one of the floor vents, simulating an emergency.  In one group, subjects were alone.  In a second group, individual subjects were joined by two fake subjects who were trained to fill out the survey while ignoring the smoke.  For the alone group, 75% of subjects acted super-reasonably (out of only 22 subjects, lets not get carried away with generalizability): they noticed the smoke within 5 seconds, got up, investigated, and 51% poked their head out to inform others within 2 minutes of first seeing smoke.  The group with two “fake” people took four times as long to even notice smoke, and 9 out of 10 sat there as the room filled up with smoke, so that six minutes in, after visibility was greatly reduced and people were coughing, the experiment had to be ended.

So what does this mean?  Possibly lots.  First, we may pay less attention to what is going on when in groups.  Second, when alone, we can each be expected to be more responsive in an emergency.   Third, and most importantly for the present purpose, group emergency situations are not magical windows through which inner virtue is revealed.  Rather, we misinterpret group emergency situations because we are all getting our cues from each other.  Group emergency situations, in other words, measure if we check-in with the people around us and, if we do, care what they think.  Fortunately for the world, 1 of 10 of us are egotistical assholes who obligingly give no thought to the feelings of others.

Wesley+Autrey+Bush+Delivers+2007+State+Union+Fcrpj-u9mXul

Hero or egotistical asshole?  Wesley Autrey,  a subway hero, was honored by GW Bush at his second SOTU.  Believe me, it’s hard for the torrent of praise and adoration not to go to your head–exactly what the egotist needs.

This resonates profoundly with my own experience.  On that day, I distinctly remember listening to some podcast when I heard screams.  I remember turning, seeing a man lifeless, laying down on the tracks.  I remember, with no pause whatsoever, really not a second-thought, immediately turning and running towards him, flinging off my iPod, flip flops, sunglasses, and backpack, and getting ready to jump down to him.  I have no memory of looking at the people around me, and trying to get a sense from them what was gong on,or how I should behave.

So am I hero or an egotistical asshole who doesn’t care what other people think?  Obviously this is a false dichotomy, but I think there is an important truth here.  In most situations, taking our social cues from others is a good idea.  Fortunately, we also have the occasional weirdo who won’t, but let’s not completely misconstrue weird egotism for bravery.

I will be posting on the 2014 Primals Planning Retreat in which 12 eminent scholars from around the country came together to discuss primals research.  I know many of you have been asking about this incredible experience, and you deserve some juicy details.  More to come!  

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About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

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