My brush with bystander effect, heroism, and the Red Line

Last Wednesday, after a long day of work at the Cambridge Innovation Center near MIT, I took the Red Line subway train from MIT/Kendall Square station to Harvard Square station. Every Monday through Friday, twice a day, I take this train to work and back. Each one way trip takes 10 minutes plus or minus two minutes. How do I know? Simple—I use songs on my iPod as gauges of time (incidentally, this is also how I time the length of my showers; watches are overrated). More often than not, my subway song of choice is the Live at Slane Castle version of Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers complete with soulful arpeggios and a haunting guitar solo starting at 5:15 that sends chills up my spine every time (John Frusciante is a god); this time, I was jamming to some Kid Cudi. Right as “Pursuit of Happiness” faded out and the notes of “Soundtrack to my Life” began to play, I noticed something peculiar:

The man was standing about 20 feet away from me, middle aged and in all respects ordinary looking: hair existentially torn between gray and black, scruffy gray beard sprawled across his chin, wearing jeans and sneakers topped by a navy raincoat over a tan polo. Yet, as the familiar screech of metal on metal signaled the stop in Central Square station, the man started swinging, body gyrating haphazardly, fingers slipping from the steel pole that fused the ceiling of the train car to the floor. I thought that he had simply lost his balance, but while the rest of the passengers tightened their grips on poles and steadied themselves as the train ground to an abrupt halt, the man never recovered—in one continuous, violent motion, as if in a scene from a movie, the pole slipped through the man’s fingers, his head slamming into the pole on the other side, and he fell backwards, the back of his head impacting the floor of the train with a sickening crunch. His head rolled back, eyes glazed over, staring directly at me. I froze. A mix of adrenaline and horror rushed through my veins. The music in my ears began to fade, replaced by the sound of my heartbeat…

Ba-bump. Ba-bump.

Suddenly, a woman yelled: “Push the red button! Tell the conductor! Stop the T!” 

Immediately, I snapped back to attention. I don’t know who yelled aloud, but my vision refocused to see an Asian lady wearing glasses jump up and push the red button at the end of the train, words pouring from her mouth to the conductor in a hasty jumble:

"A man just fell…he passed out…stop the train…!" The doors of the train re-opened. 

Simultaneously, a number of passengers sitting next to the unconscious man got up out of their seats to help him, one checking his pulse and another rocking his shoulders gently and asking frantic questions. Slowly, the man faded back into consciousness; still dizzy, he attempted to get up and exit the train. One young lady helped him up, supporting his arm with hers. As he stumbled towards the open door, his legs gave way once again and he toppled backwards—this time, several passengers were there to prevent him from falling; they laid him gently on the floor, with a rain jacket supporting his head. This whole time, I remained frozen, eyes bulging in disbelief at the scene that was unfolding before me. The Asian lady pulled out her iPhone and began to call 911. A girl standing next to me called out, “is anybody here a doctor!?” No reply. She repeated, walking down the length of the train, shouting with conviction: “we need a doctor!”  Miraculously, a few minutes later, a tall man with long blonde hair, garbed in a full black trench and shrouded with an air of quiet confidence, entered the open door from one train over, and knelt down by the man. With the dexterous movements of a surgeon, he checked the man’s pulse and calmly began asking him a few rudimentary questions. I’ve read reports of population saving vaccines, doctors who work in AIDS invested third world hospitals, and even witnessed an open-heart surgery myself, but never in my life did I have more respect for a doctor and the entire field of medicine than this particular moment.

For the next fifteen minutes, the man lay on the floor, with just enough strength in his body to answer some basic questions, but not enough to get up. I heard through the murmurs of the passengers around me that they heard the man say he “has a history of seizures,” and “forgot to take his medication this morning.” He also “hadn’t eaten anything all day.” Not long after, the EMT’s arrived to cart the man out in a wheelchair…

As I walked slowly from the T station in Harvard Square back to my apartment that day, still a little shaken up, I reflected on this incident. I thought of the infamous parables of social psychology textbooks, most notably the Kitty Genovese murder, an incident that occurred in 1964 when 38 onlookers passively looked on as a killer raped and murdered 28 year old Kitty, all while she was fleeing and screaming for help. I felt a wave of warmth and relief that the outcome of this incident was different. At the same time, I was disappointed. Disappointed in myself for freezing and being unable to move when the man fell, while others around me reacted to help this man. What if no one had reacted? Would I have just stood and watched, idly, passively, while the man suffered the second, perhaps fatal, fall? Would I have washed my hands with the guilt of tacit inaction? Social psychology suggests a number of well-documented theories for what I had experienced. The bystander effect, coined by researchers Darley and Latane following the Kitty Genovese murder, states that the more people are around in a given public emergency, the less likely an individual will go out of his or her way to help. In these emergency situations that challenge our past experiences and render us helpless, we look to others for social cues on how to respond, and when we see everyone looking on passively, as bystanders, we are driven to inaction; a vicious cycle ensues because everyone is thinking the same—this is called pluralistic ignorance. Both bystander effect and pluralistic ignorance are exacerbated by diffusion of responsibility, a phenomenon where the more people there are, the less likely a given individual will take responsibility on his or her own shoulders, because each expects another to take responsibility. Economists know this as the "tragedy of the commons." Finally, in conditions of anonymity, people are even less likely to intervene. Yet, there is a light in the darkness. Although overcoming the collective constraints of bystander effect, diffusion of responsibility, pluralistic ignorance, and anonymity for any individual are incredibly high, if only one person takes the plunge and intervenes, others are much more likely to follow. We call these people heroes.

While our society traditionally tends to see heroes as superhuman (Batman, Superman, the Hulk) or historical (Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi), Phillip Zimbardo, Stanford psychologist and head of the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment, argues in this enlightening Ted Talk that true heroism can be achieved by every day, ordinary people. In his book, The Lucifer Effect, he argued that just as it is dangerous to “morally disengage” ourselves from instances of great evil, such as the Holocaust, and state with conviction that we would never stoop to that level of moral degradation, it is equally important to realize that heroes aren’t just reserved for Marvel comics or World Wars—we are all capable of heroism. That is, both the lines between evil and heroism are permeable. The unidentified lady who first yelled for someone to inform the conductor is a hero. The lady who ran through the train asking if anyone is a doctor is a hero. The doctor is a hero. The Asian lady who called 911 is a hero. Heroism, like self-discipline, is a muscle that can (and ought to) be exercised (see Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project here: This incident has inspired me to be more heroic in my own life, because it is simply the right thing to do. I charge us all: the next time we experience a situation that challenges convention and renders us helpless, fight against  the biological responses of stress and the social psychological constraints of social influence. Refuse to look on in helpless fascination. No matter whether the next incident is a fall in a subway, bullying, or something far worse (rape, assault, murder?), we should all act. Because we can. Because we must.