Friday, September 16, 2011

Rescue Me

I'm sure most of you have heard of or seen this incredible story. While I would agree that these rescuers can call themselves heroes, I wonder about why people will sometimes risk their lives for others, and at other times not. It's an interesting query about human nature.

In most cases, despite our best wishes, people do not risk their lives for others. 

Perhaps you're heard of the famous case in 1964, in which a woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered in a parking lot in Queens within hearing range of dozens of people. Despite her screams during the crime no one intervened or called for help. Psychologists later coined this phenomenon 'bystander apathy.' There are many other cases of bystander apathy known, including the beating of Reginald Denny during the L.A. riots.

People may not help for a host of reasons, but social perception and fear play a role. Psychologists have noted, for example, that witnesses will assess the situation by gauging others' reactions. If other witnesses to a crime are doing nothing, then most people will also do nothing. They'll assume that someone is handling the situation, or there is some reason why no one is acting.

Of course some people will not interfere in a crime or accident due to fear of injury to themselves. This goes without saying. Unfortunately for as many celebrated cases of successful heroic acts, scores of good Samaritans are killed attempting to help. If you notice on the Salt Lake City video, even though many folks are helping, some witnesses are standing by, including the driver of the vehicle involved in the crash.

Then why do some people still intervene even at peril to themselves? One reason I think is strength in numbers. I think the young motorcyclist in the Salt Lake City accident was lucky, because he crashed near a construction site with several workers present. 'As a group' I think the construction workers felt safer intervening together. Danger seems neutralized when faced with others. 

A second reason is the opposite of bystander apathy, perhaps call it 'bystander sympathy'. When other bystanders observe people taking action, they join in too. A couple of active people serve as a catalyst to others.

Another reason I think people intervene despite danger is that they have the capacity to go 'into the moment,' and act without thinking. The more dire and shocking situation, the more likely they'll just act. Many people will say this after a rescue: "I'm not a hero. I just did it."I think if people perceive they can act in the moment, they will.

Finally, I think some people intervene and risk their lives because that is their personality, and outlook on life. Otherwise we wouldn't have people willing to work as EMTs, soldiers, or firefighters.

Hopefully a group of these folks is milling around during the next human tragedy.

No comments: