Tag Archives: heroism

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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It’s a Secret

Instead of people simply seeing this story on TV and saying, “Oh it’s nice that someone out there is brave,” I wish they would say, “it’s nice to see a reminder that we are a brave and caring people.”  We are.  You are.  That’s the message that I wish the news coverage would talk about more.  Stories of ordinary people being brave broadcasts that secret.  I am the same philosophizing-goofball I was when I was waiting anxiously for the train.  My ensuing actions say something about all of us, about average people.  We rise to occasions.  It would be absurd to think, for example, that the folks on flight 93, which crashed in PA on 9/11, who acted way braver than me, were by some fluke of travel planning in the top 1% of brave people in the country, or even the top 10% or 30%.  Nah.  They were most likely a swath of regular folks.  This tells me that the average Joe can be counted on to be brave and is most likely capable of incredible human kindnesses.  So what do we do with that?  I think we should treat each other with the respect that brave people deserve and take some comfort from the fundamental decency that pervades our society–though too often in secret.

Some disagree.  They say I have to look no further than the people in the video just standing around and not helping.  There were hundreds of people there just watching, they say.  What about the guy who filmed it?  What decent human being chooses to film instead of help?

But what should they have done?  What is helpful in that situation?  Even in retrospect, in the calm of my living room, I have a hard time thinking up things they should have been doing.  In the chaos of the moment, how can we expect people to have any clue what to do or even to know what is going on.  People are always morally bound to do what they think is right, but if you have no idea what is right, you have no decision to make.  Those of you who have read my manuscript know that if there is no decision to be made, then nothing can be revealed about a person’s character.  If there is nothing you think you should do, it isn’t even possible to reveal how brave or cowardly you might be.

Ok.  So why was I doing something:

1) Most people who watched the event unfold came later.  Right when it happened, there were only a few people near where he fell in.  Of those people, I was the first to react, but there were reasons for that.

2) I am physically fit.  Maybe other people did not think they were capable of pulling someone up.  I certainly wouldn’t want my wife jumping down there.  The risk to herself would not be worth the small amount of help she could offer in grabbing him.  (FYI, my wife laughed at this; she thinks it’s true.)

3) I ran up thinking that all it would take was jumping down and picking him up before the next train came.  So, I became involved in the situation before I understood how dangerous it was.

4) Of the people there when he fell, I was likely one of the most trained people there and possibly the most experienced in life or death situations.  I was a lifeguard in high school.  On separate occasions, two kids who jumped in the pool not knowing how to swim.  On one of my first days as Head Lifeguard, one girl fell off the high dive onto the concrete and was convulsing terribly.  I remember running around like a chicken with my head cut off not really knowing what to do.  I responded in ways I wish I didn’t, but I certainly learned from the situation.  During high school I myself had several concussions.  I also broke my arm in spectacular leaping fashion when I failed to see a big sewer drain opening up before me as I ran through woods at night.  As I was being carried to the ambulance surrounded by friends, somebody on each side offered to hold my hand.  I was so in shock that I apologized several times, saying how sorry I was that I could not hold the one person’s hand because when I did my arm hurt.  Once my buddy stepped on some thick wire that speared his foot, and I had to pull it out for him.  Twice I was attacked by a swarm of bees.  Once my dad, another buddy, and I were almost killed when we were snorkeling and did not see the weather change and a storm pick up.  In college, I was a volunteer firefighter for two years.  I also took a 3 week course and became a Wilderness First Responder, kinda like an EMT for the woods.  We did dozens of practice scenarios when somebody was hurt, and we had to respond appropriately.  During college, I also checked a thief into some arcade machines as he was running away from police.  In Buffalo, I almost drowned in the Niagara River, and I lived in an area where I could occasionally hear gunfire and hooliganism.  In Atlanta, in the process of getting ACE certified, I took CPR training for the 4th time.  And these are just the highlights.  Maybe somebody on the platform from the start had more pressure situation experience and training than me.  Maybe not.  But I know that that background is what allowed me to stay calm and talk the guy through it.  I know it’s what made me realize that he probably did not even know where he was and probably could not deduce it in his present state with the cacophony of noise around him, or at least that had been my experience when I was in shock.  (Still it is entirely possible that what I did was INCREDIBLY stupid.  I think in firefighter training I was told not to grab people who were being shocked.  Oops.)

When somebody freezes in a pressure situation.  It does not mean they are not brave.  It means that they have no idea what to do.  They still really want to help, and they think they should be helping, but they have no idea what to do.  I only knew what to do, or had an opinion about what I should do, because of my experience.

Ultimately, I think it is likely that not a single person at the incident knew exactly what they should do and yet failed to act out of fear and cowardice.  If so, nobody there was cowardly at all, and the man who caught it on video did do some real good: the video-footage is proof for all of us that we are a brave and caring people.

That video now has almost 60,000 views!  Crazy.  And my friend Andie just told me the front page of Yahoo News had it up for a while.  The most accurate coverage though I think was done by CBS.


Unjust Justice

At a news interview tonight, a reporter told me that police are charging Wes with public drunkenness, reckless endangerment, and something else I don’t remember.  The reporter asked me to respond and I want to share:

I think almost dying and getting badly injured is disincentive enough to provide behavioral change.  Assuming that he is not totally heartless, I am sure he also feels extremely embarrassed and ashamed to have endangered others.  I think our sense of justice in America can sometimes miss the mark.  My mother crashed her car last year, no other vehicles involved, in which her car was totaled, and she was almost killed.  She got a ticket and had to pay a considerable fine.  This sort of event or way of thinking is not uncommon.  It’s not the policeman’s fault.  It’s our way of thinking as a society that is to blame.  That is what I want to change.

The reporter also asked me:  Would you have done what you did if you knew that he was drunk?

My answer: Absolutely.  I make mistakes all the time.  Do you?  When I have fallen, physically and metaphorically, people have been there to help me up.  I had all the same problems with selfishness, greed, lust, pride, and bad-decision making before this event, and I still have them.  When I make my next mistake, when you do, we hope someone is there to pick us up.

I was sad to see in some of the comments on the youtube video that people were viciously ridiculing Wes for what has been said he did.  I try to stay away from biblical allusions, as I am rarely confident of God’s meaning, but it seems so appropriate here.  In John 8, Jesus was asked what to do about a criminal (there’s more to this story but irrelevant to the present purpose).  The law said that the criminal should be stoned.  Jesus said, “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.”   Of course we need laws and punishment, but maybe sometimes punishment is more unjust than no punishment.

Even if we did find someone who did not make mistakes, I imagine that person would also be wise enough to understand the beauty and importance of each individual.  When we make mistakes, we do not become suddenly worthless.  We are beautiful, maturing, and imperfect individuals.  Again, please do not judge a person based on one time events.  That also applies to me.  I am not defined by one act of heroism either.

Besides, what active and adventuresome person has not ridden MARTA and wondered if they were capable of clearing those tracks?  I certainly have.

2 housekeeping notes:

  1. I made a “Subway Incident” page (link above) as a receptacle for all links and things related to what happened on Sunday and the aftermath.  I’ll be posting about it less often, the worthy posts might wind up there, and I’ll try to keep that page current with the interviews and stuff that I am doing on-air and not.
  2. Alicia has decided that if several hundred people are going to be looking at my blog regularly or irregularly, it should be a bit more presentable.  She reads my stuff and edits at her leisure.  So, if you read something riddled with errors and idiocy, it means it is unadulterated Jer.

Reflections

The last 30 hours have brought a whirl of reflections into my brain.  Some are not important.  For example, I could have sworn that the guy who jumped onto the tracks was wearing a white shirt, and he is decidedly not.  It’s crazy what you can get straight-up wrong.  I have reflections about feeling manly, that my strength was useful for something besides lifting heavy boxes and opening stubborn jars.  I reflect on death and our transience on this earth.  I also have a number of reflections as I compare this event to what happened seven years ago in London when I checked that thief into those slot machines (maybe I’ll post that story sometime).  But the one thought, or rather, the one train of thought worth sharing, is one that contains something genuinely new and exciting to me.

The film Love Actually is a good teacher.  It does a great job at showing how love is indeed much more prevalent than one might realize–just go to a big airport and watch people as they reunite.  The kisses are clumsy.  Everyone is hugging.  Love is thick and human.  I believe that despite monstrous war, greed, and avarice, love is actually more defining of our collective existence, only we rarely see it’s enormity and take note.  Sunday’s events proved to be another good teacher of how much love permeates my existence.  For example, I already knew my wife loved me desperately before this whole thing happened.  But apparently, my understanding did not come close to plumbing the massive depths of that love.  Likewise, I knew a number of people thought I was a good guy, but I had no idea how many people genuinely cared for me until I received several hundred emails and texts over the last few days.  But Sunday’s events proved a good teacher for a similar yet different reason.

Most of the texts and emails I received were effusive in their praise.  In many I was called a hero.  Being called a “hero” is a first for me and has had a surprising effect.  I love telling stories, but apparently only ones in which I am being a goofball.  This one I can’t seem to accurately tell without making myself look brave and heroic, and it makes me cringe.

Bravery is for special people, right?  Heroism is for really really awesome people, right?  Without ever fully articulating it, it has nevertheless been my belief that only a select few were truly brave and heroic.  So how can I tell this story which seems inextricable from my own acts of bravery?  In telling it, I feel like I am not just bragging a little, a long standing tradition of mine which I enjoy and have come to master; I am bragging a lot.

But I am conveniently mistaken in my understanding of heroism.  In truth, heroism is normal.  Bravery is normal.  Just like how love is in fact more abundant than selfishness and greed, bravery and heroism is more defining of our world than cowardice.

This is not some clever way of coming to terms with calling myself a hero (each time I say that I think of the song, “I can be your hero baby…”) or making my readers feel good about themselves ( Say “You’re a hero!”  “No, you’re a hero.”  “No, No, you’re a hero.” in a consecutively less sincere and higher pitched voice).  This seems to me to just be a rational response to the evidence.

I do not have the energy to give this point the passionate, intelligent argument it deserves or needs.  But I will say this: its seems ludicrous to suggest that the population on flight 93 were composed of the bravest people in America who by happenstance found themselves on the same flight.  It seems absurd to think that the firefighters serving at the World Trade Center were somehow a collection significantly braver and more heroic than those firefighters throughout the rest of the country, as if there was something magical in New York City drinking water.

Instead, these types of events, in which normal people act heroically, reveals more about what is normal than the person who happens to be acting.  This blows my mind!

A great many of us are heroes.  I am fortunate to enjoy some proof of my own courage, but having courage is not what makes me different.  It makes me normal, and that says something about all of us and should inform our perceptions of each other.  As we look at our mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters, we should recognize that they too are brave people.  They are heroes deserving respect.  For evidence will not make them a hero.  It will merely reveal what they already are.

So love is more abundant than hate; heroism and courage is more widespread than cowardice.  But that’s only a start.  What I want for all of us is a radically altered perspective of the world which recognizes more accurately its incalculable glory and beauty.  This is not some blind optimism conjured by the hysterics associated with dramatic life-and-death situations.  I vigorously defend this confidence, and try to make it infectious, in a manuscript entitled Therefore Joy.  The book’s train of thought, grounded in the most basic beliefs shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, leaves me in a place where I expect to find things like beauty, love, and heroism around every corner.  These ideas, this insatiable expectation that I will see more and more joyous sights, has changed my life and the lives of a few of my friends, but that is all the change I have been capable of so far.

During the Fox5 interview, the reporter asked me what I was still hoping to get out of this experience.  A number of things popped into my head.  For example, I would really like to meet up with Wes someday, have a beer, and make sure he’s ok.  I would really like to learn more about trains.  Mostly and especially, I really need some sleep.  But what I was particularly excited about is something that has already started happening; people are paying attention.  Maybe if enough people check out my blog, or subscribe to it, I can convince a publisher to take a chance on me, and I can finally get these ideas out there where they might be helpful for more people.  Besides that, I’m good to go, which clearly means that I am ridiculously blessed.

Thanks to all of you who have written and shown your support and love over the past day or so.  I am sorry I have not been able to reply to everyone.  Also, you can likely expect us to return to our regularly scheduled programming soon.  I promised my mother to keep my adventures more intellectual than real for a while.