THE BLOG
12/26/2012 07:21 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2013

Courage and Cowardice When Crowds and Congress Fail Us

Beware of the media cynicism about groups such as the recent apathetic subway passengers on a platform mishap, or the stalled-out U.S. Congress. Crowds can act with courage to do the right thing when properly inspired. In this age of liberated or "empowered," "self-directed work teams" and the rational seeking presumed "wisdom of crowds," there is still a role for heroes, the vital few who defy reason and safety to make a difference for us all.

The closing month of the year was bookended with paradoxical models of cowardice and courage as lessons for Congress and the rest of us. The month opened with the tragic scene of a doomed man pushed on to a subway track crying for help while motionless onlookers looked on paralyzed in horror. The following week ended with a scene of teachers instinctively shielding young school children from a deranged machine gunner with their own bodies.

Psychological research partially helps explain our cowardly inaction but not our courage to act. Conflicting headlines and contradictory research do not provide much guidance, just one-sided reason for unproductive despair.

For example, even great bestsellers from fellow Yalies such as James Suroeicki's brilliant The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), Irving Janis' profound GroupThink (1972) and Stanley Milgram's alarming Obedience to Authority (1974) offer little on these phenomena.

The Wisdom of Crowds celebrates market rationality and superior judgment of groups over outstanding individuals. By contrast, GroupThink is more condemning of crowds, focusing on the non-rational conformist tendencies of groups due to an illusion of invulnerability that punishes dissenters challenging the prevailing thought. Similarly, most of those (65 percent) in Milgram's famed obedience studies submitted to experimental demands even when they believed that the lives of fellow experimental subjects were at risk. Such work does not explain when bold action, independent thinking, and creative imagination prevail. In short, they do not explain courage!

None of the 20 nearby people on the midday Manhattan train platform moved to assist 58-year-old Ki-Suk Han when he was allegedly pushed by a homeless man onto the path of an approaching subway on December 4. Just 100 feet away, they had 90 seconds or so to help but did not. Somehow, however, R, Umar Abbassi, a freelance photographer on the scene, found the time to snap photos of the struggling man which he then sold to the New York Post as a front-page photo, a profile of Han's final seconds of distress. Abbassi grimaced later as he recalled seeing Han crushed "like a rag doll" at close range and thought his camera flash would be all he could do to alert the coming train.

By contrast, the following week, when a crazed man with an assault weapon opened fire killing 20 little children at Newtown, Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, there were no passive bystanders concerned about their own safety. The faculty of this school acted as courageous individuals without concerted effort, let alone reference to the headlines and despairing scholarship to save lives. Courageous teachers such as Vicki Soto, 27; Anne-Marie Murphy 52, Riachel D'Avino 29, Lauren Rousseau, 30, , principal Dawn Hochsprung 47, school psychologist Mary Sherlach 52 gave their lives putting themselves in front of the armed intruder. These devoted educators did not consider their own well-being for a moment before they acted.

What is the explanation for such contrasting human conduct? Is it the callousness of New York's big city life versus the more intimate small town values of idyllic Newtown, Connecticut 80 miles away? Was it the identification with the victim -- perhaps ethnic prejudice against Han, a Korean, versus compassion for innocent, vulnerable school children? Was it that Han was a stranger to those on the platform while the teachers of Sandy Hook had a bond with the children trusted to them for their care? Perhaps it was all of these factors -- but perhaps it was more.

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera recently drew upon some pioneering research to conclude "Sadly, the science says we're more likely to do nothing than respond." His source was roughly fifty years ago by two twenty something psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley conducted intensive studies of the bystander effect to understand why people do not help others in distress in emergency situations -- even when there are others nearby to assist them.

Their interest was catalyzed after the public outrage over the apathetic neighborhood response to the 1964 murder of 28 year-old Kitty Genovese in pleasant, Kew Gardens section of Queens. At least a dozen, and some initial reports suggested 38 neighbors heard her calls for help as an assailant stabbed her. As one neighbor was memorably quoted by The New York Times, "I didn't want to get involved."

While revisionists challenge the details on the magnitude of the reports of apathy, tragically, ten years later, another young woman, Sandra Zahler was beaten to death in the same apartment complex, overlooking the Genovese murder scene and again no one intervened.

Latane and Darley's research suggested that two processes set in as we look to others as for guidance on how to act. First, there is "a pluralist ignorance" that is we are not sure if this is a situation where we should act so we look to see what others do. The second is a "diffusion of responsibility" set in which inhibits people from intervening to help. That is that the more others are present, the more we presume others we help in place of our own action.

This may seem to explain the midday bystander apathy in midtown Manhattan recently, but how do we explain the heroism in Newtown a week later? In fact, what if the setting is not young kids with whom the heroes have a personal relationship?

For example, consider how differently a crowd acted in another midday mishap, this time in Logan, Utah last year on September 12, 2011. Motorcyclist Brandon Wright was rescued by a crowd of total strangers after he was stuck by a BMW 530XI on U.S. Highway 89. The bike hit the car hood and Wright slid underneath the car about to be consumed by the fiery collision.

The immediate witnesses crawled under the car to check on Wright's condition but failed in an initial attempt to lift the vehicle until others quickly joined. Ultimately 12 strangers assembled to lift the car and free Wright while nearby construction workers rushed over with fire extinguishers to put out the flames.

Five years ago, during a routine trip with his two little girls, Wesley Autrey, a 51-year-old Harlem construction worker was a hero -- and where? On a a New York subway platform. That day, 20-year-old Cameron Hollopeter suffered a seizure while on the platform falling onto the train tracks seconds before the downtown 11 train approached. Autrey, jumped on to the tracks, entrusting his two girls to the custody of two strangers. With no time to escape, Autrey pulled Hollopeter into a small space a few feet deep as the train passed overhead. They emerged to a cheering crowd and later celebration from the mayor and the president.

Similarly, on March 16, 2009, 33-year actor Chad Lindsey waited for a midday train when a man got to close to the edge too quickly, lost his balance and slipped onto the tracks. The victim, Theodore Larson, 60, suffered an apparent concussion and lay bleeding and unconscious. With a flash memory of the Wesley Autrey's improbable success three years earlier, crouching below a train, Lindsey was determined to not push his fate the same way. Lindsey pulled Larson to the side of the platform where the crowd rushed over to help raise Larson 10 seconds before the train arrived.

Lindsey left on the next train, expecting anonymity, despite his heroism, once fellow passengers gave him tissues to mop away a stranger's blood. This style parallels the iconic, patriotic, heroic images played in our past by actors such as Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, and Gregory Peck -- but Chad Lindsey, Wesley Autrey, and Dawn Hochsprung are real people, heroic people, and in the modern day.

Of course these examples are all drawn from the lives of ordinary Americans in civilian life, but in the military such heroic acts abound. Those trained for combat, such as they many police and fireman who, on 9/11, raced in selflessly to those fiery towers as others raced out to safety, were also trained for heroic roles. General Thomas Kolditz, in Leadership in Extremis (2009), shows how, in leading West Point's behavioral science group, he learned that soldiers must be trained to identify genuine crisis -- thus overcoming the "pluralistic ignorance" that prompts Latane and Darley's bystander apathy.

In short, they learn that, instead of relying upon others, a genuine crisis can be identified by recognizing five key elements: Is it unexpected or part of everyday experience? Is it extraordinary or business as usual? It is time sensitive where urgent action is essential? Is there potential for grave harm through inaction? And lastly, is this a murky, ambiguous situation with no clear road maps to follow?

If the answer is "yes" to the above issues then forget your passion for "the wisdom of crowds," which makes us cowards, it is time for you to act! Action requires confidence and competence -- do you know what to do? This is where the military and public safety workers also have lessons for prospective heroes. They are trained through crisis preparation.

Bill Bond, the school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, warned, "When you allow absolutely insane people to arm themselves like they are going to war, they are going to war!" Bond himself had been a heroic principal of a high school which suffered a murder rampage and had a gun to his head. He warned, "In a school, the only real protection is kids trusting you with information. "

It turns out that the heroic teachers of Newtown were trained in lockdown and crisis preparedness. The kids had gone through drills so that when told to follow a teacher and when to be quiet -- they knew what to do instantly. Who knows how many lives at Sandy Hook may have been saved from the crazed machine gunner?

Thus, one lesson is the old boy scout motto "Be prepared" and to forget about the scholarly research on crowd size, the urban or rural setting, the shortness of time, or even the risk of personal jeopardy. Louis Pasteur intoned, "Chance favors the mind that is prepared." Heroes need to have the trust of others and a sense of personal efficacy. Even minimal crisis management training may give them the confidence and competence to act.

A second lesson, then, is to inspire the crowd and forget about the cynical media that warns about an apathetic society. Once you act, others will likely follow your lead. In studying scores of corporate scandals, if only one knowledgeable person had courageously gone public, many other informed, righteous colleagues would have followed. The once cowardly townsfolk in classic films from High Noon to It's a Wonderful Life, rose up to join heroes in the fight against evil This is the mythic American character. In fact, crowds in real life, whether on battlefields or burning wrecks or subway train platforms, generally rush to help the heroes in their valiant causes.

This can work even to unfreeze paralyzed legislatures as we are reminded by the near failure of our Constitution's framers as they met in Philadelphia in 1787. In short, larger states demanded more voice in the nation's new legislature given their greater contribution to the nation's financial might and defense strength, while less populous states demanded equal votes. The issue of representation had led to a seven-week stalemate with the convention about to collapse. Two delegates from Connecticut, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, creatively suggested a dual house system to break the logjam, which Benjamin Franklin courageously endorsed and refined. This historic "Grand Compromise" was adopted on July 16th, 1787 by a heart-stopping single vote.

The answer to the courage versus crisis paradox is character not context. Don't blame the city, the culture, or the crowd. Heroism springs from individual character. The mythic American character is always triggered when a hero inspires the crowd.

In fact, this is not unique to America as anthropology and folklore this is what heroes have done for us over the history of humanity. Heroes provide a code of conduct during uncertain times and a path through adversity. In this era of "cultural relativism" anthropologist Joseph Campbell boldly revealed the universal qualities of heroes, calling them "the monomyth of the hero" in his classic Hero of a Thousand Faces. In city parks, town squares, and village greens around the world across countries, cultures, and continents we see statues that celebrate not crowds but rather the courageous individuals who inspire crowds.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Senior Associate Dean and Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice at the Yale School of Management is the author of The Hero's Farewell (Oxford University Press).

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