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Tweeting in the midst of imminent doom

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Hindsight is foresight. People are always quick to tell you what they, or any dummy, would have done in a situation where people lost their life ... or how they would have acted differently, but the truth is, when tested by social psychology, often the opposite is found.

A recent example was the story of a two-year-old girl in China who was twice run over by vans and then ignored by passers-by.

People outside China may very well have seen it as a condemnation of modern Chinese society, and Chinese their own, but the fact is the situation was predictable ... and it has nothing to do with humans being evil or callous. If anything, it is evolutionary, and has a lot to do with how we’re wired.

The bystander effect predicts that the more witnesses there are to an event, the less likely people are to get involved, and it has been proven over and over again, both in controlled experiments, and the real world.

One of the most famous cases occurred at 3 a.m. on March 13, 1964 in Queens, New York, when Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old bar manager was brutally raped and stabbed to death on her way home from work. The attack lasted for at least a half an hour. There were reportedly over 38 witnesses who heard the screams or saw the attack, and none intervened or even called the police until well after the attacker had fled.

It is hard to understand how people could be so callous until you’re involved in an extraordinary situation yourself. Often, there’s a sense of unreality, panic and a tendency to look around and observe the behavior of others.

In fact, one of the greatest dangers of being in a public place when an earthquake occurs, isn’t the earthquake itself, but the possibility of injury as a result of stampede, a crowd reaction that’s just the polar opposite of apathy and indifference. Here, calmness is rewarded.

Psychologist Stanley Milgram has also suggested that city life might simply lead to a type of information overload where we simply block out things that are out of the ordinary in order to stay focused.

In contrast, I remember 3/11. Friends of mine who were in buildings in Tokyo described a sense of terror, panic and fear of dying. I was at Urawa station where buildings could be seen swaying back and forth and rattling loudly, but as I looked around me, far from being in a panic, people were checking their mobiles, as was I. None of us panicked or fled, even though it was clear the trains had stopped running and weren’t going to be running any time soon. Outside the station, there was an eerie sense of calm, quiet and disbelief. What was happening up north at that time was still unknown to us. My feeling was that we were all just looking at each other.

The tendency of humans to take cues on how to behave from others has been proven time and again. Take the Milgram Experiment, where participants in an experiment are convinced to apply lethal shocks to a cohort simply because they are told to do so by an authority figure, and another experiment where people second guess their own judgments as to the size of a series of lines, simply to conform with other members of the group.

When we observe these behaviors, it makes us wonder if humans are little more than animals wired to go with the herd. Then, if we watch any National Geographic special, we can actually see why it may have once paid off. The predator stalks the herd, the herd flees, and it is always one zebra or wildebeest that gets separated for barely a second that winds up on the lion's supper table, while the rest of the herd continue on.

This predatory instinct to go with the flock doesn’t always pay off though. Native American buffalo hunters were smart. They learned if you can get the leader of the herd to go over the cliff, the rest will follow. In times that evil, brutal yet self-destructive dictators take over countries, entire human societies do this as well ...figuratively, at least.

This leads to an interesting study done almost eight years ago. When the season’s 23rd typhoon advisory alert was issued to the residents of a small town in Hyogo Prefecture, only 5.1% evacuated. Fortunately, there were no breaches of the riverbanks after it moved through.

A University of Tokyo psychologist, Hirotada Hirose, reviewed literature and found that that when people encounter earthquakes, floods and other disasters, it is not uncommon for the majority of people to fail to take quick action to avoid impending danger. It has been hypothesized that people become accustomed to the absence of danger and unknowingly become insensitive to its possibility, and therefore cannot cope once it occurs. (Full awareness of the possibility of each and every potential danger that surrounds us at each and every moment would drive us mad.)

The challenge of disaster preparedness, then, is really about teaching people to go against their human nature, even act against the grain. Although such training is offered by many local ward office, many foreigners miss out on them, some due to an inability to read the announcements on the community bulletin boards. I'd definitely encourage such readers to contact their local “gaikoku sodan” and be asked to be put in touch with the right people to be included in them.

Likewise, when it comes to seeing someone in duress, I’d suggest taking a moment to think, whether or not it's time to break off from the herd and answer to a higher calling and be a hero ... or simply stay with the herd and be a mere human.

© Japan Today

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Native American buffalo hunters were smart. They learned if you can get the leader of the herd to go over the cliff, the rest will follow.

Thus killing a whole herd in order to take the skin and flesh from a handful of beasts. Not very smart at all.

Pity about those two bloopers, 'cos the rest of the article is quite thought-provoking. I think the reason people don't panic in a disaster is not that they can't cope so much as they don't really believe it's happening. I know that was my reaction on 3/11. For the first big shock, it took me a few seconds to find shelter under the dining room table, but once the shaking had stopped (for the time being) I was able to take stock, realise the unthinkable had happened - and when it happened again a few minutes later, I was back under the table faster than greased lightning.

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The bystander effect predicts that the more witnesses there are to an event, the less likely people are to get involved, and it has been proven over and over again, both in controlled experiments, and the real world.

You can use this to your advantage, if you get in a pinch, as described in Cialdini's Influence. If you are in need to help, pick one person out of the crowd, make eye contact, and ask for help directly. Once one person helps you, many more people. I've seen it happen a few times. Of course, when the person needing the help is an unconscious kid, somebody's got to grab their balls and step up to the plate before anybody else does.

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Im sure these psychologists know what they are talking about, and in certain circumstances - like observing a brutal attack - I can understand peoples fear of getting involved for fear of being attacked themselves. I can see why people stood around doing nothing during the quake - I did too. What are you supposed to do? There was nowhere to go, nowhere to run. I remember looking around me and as far as I could see everything was twisting and swaying. So where am I going to escape to??! I just locked eyes with the complete stranger next to me and we just stood there looking at each other and waiting to see when (if!) it would pass.

But I am certain I can say with complete conviction that if I saw a 2 year old child knocked down by a car there is no way on earth I would be able to walk by and pretend I hadnt seen it. Just no way.

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Quite surprised the author has never heard of the "Bystander Effect". People are much more likely to intervene if they are the only ones to see a crime in progress. When there are several people around to see, the responsibility is shared so people feel there is less of an onus on themselves to intervene.

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But that thing in China - was digusting..... no excuse for it.

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y3chome -- huh? fourth paragraph down...

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ooooooooops guess i was skim reading too quickly innit. i stand corrected

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I would hope that a human life being crushed will defy the laws of human behavior.....seriously.

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A recent example was the story of a two-year-old girl in China who was twice run over by vans and then ignored by passers-by.

People outside China may very well have seen it as a condemnation of modern Chinese society, and Chinese their own, but the fact is the situation was predictable ... and it has nothing to do with humans being evil or callous. If anything, it is evolutionary, and has a lot to do with how we're wired.

The bystander effect predicts that the more witnesses there are to an event, the less likely people are to get involved,

This is a poor example, in my opinion. I get what the author is saying overall, but if you look at what happened in this specific case you will see there were no crowds of onlookers, no people gathered around - just individuals who callously ignored the child and took no action.

I'm not disputing the 'Bystander effect' - it's commonly known. I just think this example has been misapplied for expediency. For me, there is NO excuse for the inaction people took. The van driver stopped, looked, then ran over the child again with his second (rear) wheel. Pedestrians did nothing. Don't excuse this. It still makes me mad. Sorry for the rant.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp70Tm1SBuY&feature=related

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