Heroism Is Our Default Setting

One of the oft-cited takeaways from the past week is that people are basically awesome. In the midst of unpredictable danger and tragedy, residents (and guests) of the Boston area didn’t hesitate to help their fellow citizens.

But what’s troubling about these realizations of human goodness is that they suggest an a priori doubt about our generosity and compassion. One reason we might come to expect human selfishness is public awareness of the “Bystander Effect.” First made famous by the failure of bystanders to intervene in the relatively public murder of Kitty Genovesse, the effect refers to the way the presence of others can make us more likely to ignore those in need. It has been written about a fair amount, and on some level it has made the occurrence of truly selfless aid seem surprising.

But it shouldn’t. Recent research has shown the bystander effect to be a relatively weak and rare phenomenon in situations that resemble what occurred in Boston. For example, a 2011 meta-analysis found the bystander effect was significantly weaker in situations perceived to be dangerous. The reasoning is that dangerous situations are more quickly identified as emergencies, and this induces a state of arousal that can only be remedied by helping the victim.

A second study that’s set to be published in the British Journal of Social Psychology also pokes holes in the bystander effect. The study looked at whether people with the potential to help reacted rationally based on the perceived value of their contributions. The researchers found that when people believe a situation requires a lot of people to help, the presence of other bystanders has no detrimental effect on their likelihood of helping:

Three studies reveal that the presence of other bystanders does not inhibit helping when effective helping requires more than one help-giver. Mediation analyses showed that the bystander effect did not occur when many responses were needed because bystanders did not shift responsibility to others when in the presence of other bystanders. These findings suggest that the rational considerations underlying the bystander effect can mitigate the effects of the presence of other bystanders on helping behaviour when more than one help-giver is needed.

When thrown into an environment like the post-explosion scene in Boston, it’s clear that people will perceive a great deal of danger and understand that contributions are needed from as many people as possible. Given those circumstances, one would expect the bystander effect to have little impact. Research has also demonstrated the power of compassion in driving human behavior. This too makes what happened in Boston unsurprising.

None of this is meant to trivialize the intrepid efforts of those who risked their lives. But if it’s human nature to be compassionate and selfless in the most challenging moments, we should treat that behavior as the rule rather than the exception. We should let it be known that what happened in Boston is the prevailing social norm that should guide your future behavior.

So let’s take pride in the normative nature of our humanitarianism more often. There’s no need to wait for it to be thrust into our consciousness during moments of tragedy.
Fischer, P., Krueger, J., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., Heene, M., Wicher, M., & Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137 (4), 517-537 DOI: 10.1037/a0023304

Greitemeyer, T., & Mügge, D. (2013). Rational bystanders British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12036

One Response to Heroism Is Our Default Setting

  1. Jessica says:

    In this blog post Heroism is Our Default Setting goes along with what i learned in my Psychology Class with motivation and emotions. When the blog was talking about the Bystander Effect it goes along with motivation a little bit because to help someone out in a situation you need to get kind of motivated. If your body or brain isn’t motivated to help someone out then that person would be stuck helpless. Also the Bystander Effect can go with emotion too. It goes with emotion because your feeling sorry for that person that is in a bad situation and wanting to help them out, so its like your feeling their pain.

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