Why We're Not Always Good Samaritans

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Color print from a 1930s religious pamphlet of a good Samaritan — are selfless acts a natural reaction to others who face danger? Credit: CORBIS

When the New York Post published photos of a man moments before a subway train crushed him, much of the public outcry that ensued focused on the photographer who snapped the front-page picture.

Freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi responded with a first-person account in today’s Post, explaining that he simply followed his instincts and didn’t have time to rescue the man:

“I just started running. I had my camera up — it wasn’t even set to the right settings — and I just kept shooting and flashing, hoping the train driver would see something and be able to stop.

“I had no idea what I was shooting. I’m not even sure it was registering with me what was happening. I was just looking at that train coming.

“It all went so quickly; from the time I heard the shouting until the time the train hit the man was about 22 seconds.”

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Neuroscience and psychology experts say we should probably lay off on the blame game. When it comes to good Samaritan acts, especially in a situation like this where time is limited to seconds, a variety of factors come into play.

In fact, cases where good Samaritans could save someone in a similar situation are quite rare, said Darcia Narvaez, Notre Dame Professor of Psychology and Director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education.

“A good Samaritan act can fail at any point,” Narvaez said. Some people simply fail to notice what’s going on around them, she added.

In the days when the New York City subway was considered most dangerous, people often put blinders on when they went through the gates. Other people may notice, but the stress of the situation shuts down their higher order thinking, immobilizing them. Sometimes there may be a lack of motivation, a tendency to ignore the problem if they feel their life isn’t about being compassionate to others — those are the cases Narvaez worries about, theorizing that an increase in media violence can dull our willingness to act. And finally, those who notice and want to help may not know how to.

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Two years ago, the stars seemed to align in the rescue of a man who fell onto the Washington, D.C., metro tracks after a seizure. A retired Marine who had experience navigating subway tracks happened to be standing by, and jumped from the opposite platform to help the man to safety.

“It makes a difference when you’ve had actual physical practice,” Narvaez said. “He had the instinctive responses; in the military, you learn to act through the shock.”

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It makes sense, she said, that a photographer’s natural reaction would be to flash his camera.

“I’d attribute it more to a lack of experience than of desire or will,” she said.

Psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley defined the “Bystander Effect” in their 1970 book, The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help? based on a series of lab experiments. They found that when there are plenty of people witnessing the scene, people are less likely to offer help for two main reasons.

First, because we get our cues from others, if several people are not reacting, we may follow suit. Second, the responsibility gets watered down: If you’re the only one present, the responsibility clearly lies with you. But if there’s a crowd of 10, you may feel your responsibility is only 10 percent.

“We need to educate people that that’s an inclination, and that you have to step out of that mindset,” Narvaez said. “And if you’re a victim, looking people in the eye can help. So if you’re in a car accident, look someone in the eye and say, ‘I need your help.’”

(An article in Slate outlines what to do if you find yourself stranded on subway tracks.)

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In general, our brains reward altruistic behavior. Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman coauthored a study that showed that donating money activates a system in the brain concerned with reward and reinforcement more than receiving a gift.

“But many people are willing to give money and may not be willing to jump down in front of a train,” said Grafman, the Director of Brain Injury Research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. “Under conditions like danger, the pattern of activation in the brain is very different.”

Professional photographers sympathize with Abbasi.

“I must assume that the photographer believed that taking the photo would alert the train driver enough to stop,” Ohio University professor Stan Alost told Gawker. “I doubt any working photojournalist would knowingly choose to photograph a scene anticipating death or injury of a subject unless they felt that there was nothing they could do to help.”

The bottom line? “I would give him a break,” Narvaez said.