When Your Brain Keeps You From Doing the Right Thing (Or, Why I’m Not Batman)

There are certain occasions when the world provides a perfect opportunity to examine human psychology through the window of your own brain.  A few days ago I managed to find myself in such a situation. Here’s what happened:

I was walking with some friends down a relatively busy D.C. street lined with shops and restaurants. About half a block ahead there was a small crowd of people. As we approached we saw that about 30 feet beyond the crowd there was an inebriated, mentally unstable homeless man verbally berating another man and engaging in what I would call physically aggressive behavior (not quite assault). It was hard to tell exactly what was going on, but at first glance it looked like a run-of-the-mill fight between two people.

We stopped at the crowd of  around 10 people and surveyed the situation for a few seconds. At that point the attacker violently pushed the victim to the ground. The victim remained on the ground and the attacker continued yelling nonsensical insults at him.

Now I don’t tend to be a very courageous person, but years of watching drunk people yell and fight at bars and concerts has left me with little tolerance for physical fighting. It’s the only time I’m ready to be a vigilante. Usually if I’m at a bar and two people appear close to fighting I’ll go near them and yell something like “Why don’t you use indoor voices to work this out!” Once in a blue moon I’ll physically get between them.

So I decided to start walking aggressively toward the two men. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Ideally, I thought I could reason with the attacker and convince him violence was bad.  Practically, I was hoping to scare the attacker off.

When I got about 10 feet away I stopped.  I wasn’t sure why. I stared daggers at the attacker, but I didn’t move any closer. He continued yelling. A few seconds later another bystander came forward and helped pull the victim away. At this point the attacker began to back off.  The police arrived seconds later and took him away.  The victim escaped with nothing more than a few scrapes.

In the minutes that followed I couldn’t stop wondering why I stopped. The simple explanation is that at the exact moment I approached the scene the attacker was merely yelling. On some level I might have been worried that my presence would incite him to get violent. But that reasoning didn’t completely satisfy me. Eventually, I decided on the following explanation:

Although the attacker being was verbally and physically abusive, there was no reason the man being attacked could not run away. The attacker was not continuously assaulting the victim or restricting his movement in any way. In fact, the attacker held a crutch in one hand. Yet the man just lay on the ground. He didn’t move. Clearly he was afraid, and as a result it seems he resorted to a kind of “stay in fetal position” defense.

I think it was the victim’s lack of movement that stopped me.  In fast moving and potentially dangerous situations our unconscious picks up on a lot of cues. I think I picked up on the fact that the victim was not running away, and that flashed huge warning sign in my head. The attacker must have some other power or weapon. Maybe he has a gun? Maybe a knife? Why wouldn’t the victim just get up? I wasn’t consciously aware of these thoughts, but I think they were there, and their presence was enough to make me pause for just a few seconds.

The situation shows just how hard it is to help others in these types of situations. Although I didn’t do the “right thing” for society, I did do the right thing for me. There was a potentially dangerous situation, and my brain ensured that I didn’t put myself in danger.  From an evolutionary standpoint it was a success. From the standpoint of the victim (or my ego), it was not.

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