Tag Archives: subway hero

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.

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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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My Segment on the Dr. Drew Show

If I had a bucket list, disagreeing with Anderson Cooper on national television would be on it.  And I would be crossing it off!

A few weeks ago, a man got pushed onto the tracks of a New York subway station.  Someone managed to take the picture below, which wound up on the cover of the Post.  You probably saw it.

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The next day, in the context of a national bitch session in which America heaped blame on bystanders for their inaction (including the cameraman) and their own culture for producing a population of cowards, I was asked to join a “panel of heroes” on the Dr. Drew show on HLN, a CNN sister channel, to talk about why we acted in the face of danger when others did not.  What was our awesome sauce?  Why did I reach out and grab the guy’s hand, who was getting shocked by the third rail, when I knew I could die?  (Checkout the 15 minutes of fame tab above, which I suppose now is my 15.5 minutes of fame, if you don’t know what I am talking about.)

Sorry it has taken a long time to post the video clip of my interview.  I know many of you have been waiting.  My segment is only 2 minutes and starts 12.5 minutes in. I was told the discussion with Anderson Cooper went long and they lost my feed for second.  But for what it’s worth:

While I was super pleased to be on the show and enjoyed myself, I was frustrated that I did not get a chance to share a couple of important points, especially when I felt like we were all living in a fun little fantasy.  While Cooper was right on some things, and the conversation was in many ways more substantive than I have come to expect from cable news, he is completely wrong about wider culture.  It is ludicrous to think that emergency situations are some magical prism in which our true character is revealed.  Keeping Your Head is a specific skill that is cultivated through practice.  Most of us have little.

Instead, we do what we are trained to do. The modern human, generally, is good at whipping out phones and taking pictures. We usually have no clue what to do in pressure situations.  A couple reasons might be that our lives include sitting in cubicles and exclude panicked flight from saber-toothed tigers.  But, when the modern human does have a clue (read soldiers, fireman, police officer, etc.), we almost always act bravely.

After I grabbed the guy on the subway and it was caught on film, everyone in my life was calling me a hero, and it was obnoxiously irrefutable that I was one.  I was uncomfortable with it, it made me reflect, and I came to a startlingly life-affirming conclusion that I have blogged about previously.  Here is the elevator speech:

We are a brave and caring species: you, me, pretty much everybody.  I am the same philosophizing-goofball I was when I was waiting anxiously for the train.  My actions says 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%, and that this flight full of super duper heroes happened to be one that was hijacked. Nah.  The folks who stormed the cockpit on flight 93 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.”

Famous psychologist and Stanford proffessor Phillip Zimbardo agrees.  He writes in  “The Banality of Heroism”:

The idea of the banality of heroism debunks the myth of the “heroic elect,”…[which ascribes] very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special—to see them as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us.

But if incredible bravery is normal, why are we so blind to it?  Why did the country roundly condemn the bystanders who let the man die on the subway tracks?  Good question.  I’ll blog about that next time, but I’ll say this much: What struck me as I listened to Anderson Cooper and Dr. Drew talk before I went on the air is that negative news and looking down on others seems to serve an important social function that I had been reading about in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.  Namely, gossiping about what’s wrong with other people helps us bond to the people that we gossip with.

More later…

Oh…and here is a picture of Alicia and I at a little shin-dig that happened 20 blocks away from our house.  Thank you Derek Schwabe for getting us tickets!

Alicia and I at Obama’s 2nd Innagural.

Jer and Alicia Clifton at Obama’s 2nd inaugural, 2013