Joe Nocera The New York Times: It’s Hard to Be a Hero

December 7th, 2012

It’s Hard to Be a Hero
Published: December 7, 2012

On a crisp January day in 2007, a 50-year-old construction worker named Wesley Autrey became a New York hero when he rescued a man who had fallen onto the subway tracks.

A train had just left the station, so the platform was nearly empty except for Autrey, his two daughters and a young man who was having a seizure of some sort. The man fell onto the tracks, in a position, Autrey told me recently, “where he was going to lose his limbs.” With another train fast approaching, Autrey instinctively jumped onto the tracks, positioned the man’s body safely between the rails, and lay on top of him. Five cars passed over them before the train screeched to a halt.

What prompted me to telephone Autrey was the death on Monday of Ki-Suck Han, a Queens man who was pushed onto the 49th Street subway tracks, allegedly by Naeem Davis, a drifter with whom police said he had been having an altercation. This time, there were plenty of people on the platform, most notably R. Umar Abbasi, a photographer who took some horrifying pictures as the subway train closed in on Han.

The 22 seconds or so between Han being pushed and the train reaching him was about the same amount of time that Autrey had nearly six years earlier. Yet, on Monday, no one on the crowded platform made a move to help Han until it was too late. (A doctor tried to administer C.P.R., but he was already dead.)

“People were just standing in fear and shock, not really knowing what was going on” one bystander told a crowd of reporters. “Some people started running out of the platform. Other people just stood there.”

When one of Abbasi’s gruesome photographs landed on the front page of The New York Post, the reaction was fierce. “Someone’s taking that picture,” said Al Roker on NBC’s “Today Show.” “Why aren’t they helping this guy up?”

Abbasi defended himself in part by saying he used his flash to warn the conductor, but he was also quick to point the finger at others: “Why didn’t the people who were close enough help him?” he asked. “If I had reached him in time, I would have pulled him up,” he insisted. We all harbor the hope that if we found ourselves in the same position as Wesley Autrey — or Umar Abbasi — we would act with courage instead of cowardice.

Yet behavioral science suggests otherwise. The most famous case of bystanders failing to act took place in 1964, when Kitty Genovese, a young woman living in a quiet Queens neighborhood, was brutally stabbed to death. Despite her repeated screams for help, some 38 people who heard her from their apartments did nothing — not even call the police.

A.M. Rosenthal, the renowned former executive editor of The Times, who was then the metropolitan editor — and who had gotten the tip that led to the story — wrote a short book called “Thirty-Eight Witnesses.” In it, Rosenthal asked the question that haunted the country in the aftermath of the murder: Why?

Why didn’t anyone do anything?

Rosenthal could only guess at the answer because there had been no research on what is now known as “pro-social behavior.” But after the story gripped the country, two young social scientists — Bibb Latané, then at Columbia University, and John Darley, who taught at New York University — conducted a series of experiments on the behavior of bystanders.

Their startling conclusion, which is now known as the bystander effect, is that the more people who witness a crime, the less likely any one of them will come to the aid of the victim. Partly this is because when people see others not doing anything, they become confused, not sure if it really is an emergency — “a collective ignorance” says Latané. Another reason, though, is something called the diffusion of responsibility. “You think to yourself, there are all these other people here. This isn’t entirely my problem,” says Latané.

Go back to the beginning of this column. The crucial detail in 2007, when viewed through the prism of behavioral science, is that the subway platform was nearly empty. Autrey acted heroically — even leaving his two young children unattended to do so — because there was no one else who could help. On Monday, the 49th Street subway platform was full of people, each possibly thinking that someone else was closer, someone else was stronger, someone else should be responsible for the heroic act. As a result, no one acted.

“I wouldn’t do the wrong thing,” one man waiting for a subway train told The Times on Tuesday. That’s what we all want to think. It’s why we are so quick to condemn those who do nothing at such moments.

But let’s be honest: We don’t really know how we’d act until the moment is upon us. Sadly, the science says we’re more likely to do nothing than respond like Wesley Autrey.


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