Our latest issue of Greater Good magazine came out this month, featuring several essays about "the psychology of the bystander." We look at the factors that do–and don't–induce people to come to the aid of others in a crisis situation.
Just before this issue came off the press, the front page of The New York Times told the story of Wesley Autrey, a man who leapt onto the NYC subway tracks to save a stranger who was having a seizure… while a train was approaching the station… while Autrey's two little daughters stood on the platform. A few days later, the Times's Week in Review section included an article that discussed research on the bystander phenomenon, interviewing many of the same people featured in our issue. (Autrey was later honored in President Bush's State of the Union address.)
I won't go until all the factors that may or may not contribute to bystander action or inaction–for that you'll have to read the issue–but one thing I found notable was that Autrey served in the Navy. In an article my co-editor, Dacher Keltner, and I wrote for this issue of Greater Good, psychologist John Darley mentioned how a person's past experiences might determine whether or not they come to someone's aid in the future–i.e., someone accustomed to making snap decisions in a crisis might be more likely to intervene rather than remain a bystander. Darley remembered how one particular participant in one of his studies reacted when Darley and his colleagues pumped (benign) smoke into the room where this guy was sitting, to see how he (and other participants) would react to that sign of danger.
Darley recalled how the guy "got the hell out [of the room] and did something, because of his past experiences." And what "past experiences" was Darley referring to? The man's stint in the Navy, where his ship once caught on fire.
So is military service the key to not acting the bystander? No, but I don't think this should necessarily be dismissed as coincidence, either. Do people who are prone to risk their lives for others join the Navy, or does the Navy make people more willing to risk their lives for others? I don't know that either is true, but I don't doubt there's some connection–do you?
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About The Author
Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.