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Heroism Or Hesitation?

Is Failure To Act In A Crisis Human Nature, Or A Sign We've Abandoned Our Values?


June 11, 2008

In the nearly two weeks since Angel Arce Torres was hit by a reckless driver who fled the scene, there has been endless dissection of a videotape of the Hartford accident and endless hand-wringing over whether bystanders took too long to come to his aid.

Those bystanders and motorists who failed to help immediately have been called callous and detached by some, while others point out that, indeed, four bystanders did call 911, and help arrived very shortly. But there are long moments when it appears from the tape that no one is doing anything.

All of this raises the question: How can humans be expected to react in such situations? Is this an example of inhumanity, or was it a normal response?

We talked to a number of experts, who make it clear that there is no simple way to interpret what happened on Park Street.

There are social psychologists who say it has nothing to do with heartlessness and everything to do with how our mind works in an emergency, while an ethicist sees it as a failure to act on our shared values. A media expert sees people isolated by fear instilled by all that they read and hear in the media, while a psychiatrist sees it as a failure of human connection.

For social psychologists like Marianne LaFrance at Yale University and Charles Lowe at the University of Connecticut, what happened on Park Street is a textbook example of what's called the "bystander effect."

LaFrance explained, "The basic logic is that the more people there are to witness an emergency, the more uncertainty is aroused on a number of different counts about what to do and who should do it."

Because an emergency is by nature uncharted territory, people look to those around them for cues about how they should react. "If no one rushes to the scene, people assume the others know more than they do," said LaFrance. "Often people assume that somebody else has already called the police or has gone to get help and that they might be redundant or in the way or that other people have perhaps more expertise than they themselves have."

After an incident like the one on Park Street, people react by questioning what has "happened to our fellow feeling. They assume that something is awry, something is very wrong," said LaFrance, "as opposed to realizing that this is built into the human system: to check out what others are doing, to look to others as a source of information and guidance as to how one should define the situation and as to how one should respond."

"People don't want to be seen as foolish; they don't want to get in the way; they don't want to act precipitously, so they use other people's lack of response as a cue to their own response."

Lowe said there is also a factor called "diffusion of responsibility." If a number of people witness an event, then the responsibility is spread across all of them, he said. "It makes you feel like, if something is wrong, it's really not my fault because everybody saw it, whereas if you're alone, and it was you alone who saw it, you are responsible."

The chances of your getting rescued, whether you are being attacked or collapsing of a heart attack, LaFrance said, "is much greater if there is just one person who saw you than if there are several."

In many cases, that pause to check with others can be seen as mature and wise, LaFrance said. "It's taking a second to figure out what's going on before impulsively rushing into the burning building to save the baby."

Such hesitation can also be seen as "the least beneficial thing to do, but it is part of how we are. It's not a statement about heartlessness or lack of care for others," LaFrance said. "It's not alienation produced by city living. It's a statement about how our minds work."

What about heroes? Those people who don't seem to care a whit for their own safety and reflexively rush in to help? LaFrance said much research has been devoted to searching for the personality type or traits that make people rush to help, but nothing definitive has been turned up. She said there is some data, however, suggesting that heroes are people who are somewhat disengaged from the social world people who aren't particularly attentive to the other people and will "rush in where others fear to tread."

However, in general, she said, the human response to emergencies is "far more complicated than some people are good, caring and empathetic and others are frozen and uninvolved with other human beings."

Or, as Lowe said, "It's the not the type of person; it's the social situation that determines the behavior. If you and I were at that particular scene, we wouldn't have helped either." Lowe said that calling for help on a cellphone was a healthy way for people to respond.

But from the perspective of an ethicist, what happened on Park Street is more about dysfunction. Gerard Magill, a professor of health ethics at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, says the situation points up what he calls "a deep chasm between our ethics and our reactions." While many of us were raised on the Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan, Magill said, "the harsh reality is that the [Golden Rule] is disappearing in front of us, evaporating like the fog in front of us."

Magill said the people who walked or drove past the accident without stopping though several did call 911 were "probably good people, fine parents, God-worshiping believers, but none of them took action."

What happened reveals "a deep divide in our society between who we are and what our values are," said Magill. "A deep division between our daily life and our proclaimed values."

David Walsh, founder and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis, said some bystanders hesitate to help because they see the world as a dangerous place.

"It's called the 'mean world syndrome,' and it's because of media's tendency to focus on the negative," said Walsh. "We don't hear about the hundreds of nice things people do for each other. All we hear about is the negative."

This exaggerates "that tendency that we all have to keep to ourselves, stay safe and isolated, and to just look out for number one rather than to create a community where people care for each other and look out for one another," said Walsh. "When it comes time for us to help our neighbor, this is a barrier we must overcome."

Dr. Tracy Latz, a North Carolina psychiatrist, says that when people are trapped by their own fears and concerns they fail to reach out and connect with others. Instead of jumping in to help, Latz said, people may be thinking: "I need to get here or there; I'm on the way to work; if I get involved someone will sue me. If I get involved maybe a gang person will come after me."

In this case, Latz said, people might have thought, "If I pick up the phone and call 911, that completely absolves me instead of stopping and talking to the person, letting them know someone cares."

Latz said that a feeling of unity among people tends to arise during huge crises like the attack on the World Trade Towers or like the earthquake in China. "Does it have to take a huge crisis?" she asked.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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