How to save your own life (or some one else’s)

remembering_kitty_genovese-crime_sceneImagine this

“You’re spending a summer afternoon at a music concert in the park. As the concert ends and people begin leaving, you notice a slight numbness in one arm but dismiss it as nothing to be alarmed about. Yet, while moving with the crowd to the distant parking areas, you feel the numbness spreading down to your hand and up one side of your face. Feeling disoriented, you decide to sit against a tree for a moment to rest.

Soon you realize that something is dramatically wrong. Sitting down has not helped; in fact, the control and coordination of your muscles has worsened to the point that you are starting to have difficulty moving your mouth and tongue to speak.You try to get up but can’t. A terrifying thought slashes to mind: “Oh, God, I’m having a stroke!

Groups of people are passing by, and most are paying you no attention. The few who notice the odd way you are slumped against the tree or the strange look on your face check the social evidence around them and, seeing that no one else is reacting with concern, walk on past, convinced that nothing is wrong.”

This hypothetical scenario was described in the classic book Influence:  The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D.

How do people decide what to do in a particular situation?

Dr. Cialdini was discussing the fact that one way people figure out what is correct in a particular situation is to observe what other people are doing. “Usually,” he says, “ when a lot of people are doing something,  it is the right thing to do.”

But, sometimes, taking your cues from other people does not work so well. The reason is that you are most likely to rely on the actions of other people to decide what to do when you are unsure of yourself, when the situation is unclear or ambiguous, and when uncertainty reigns.

That makes sense, and yet that’s problematic because when a situation is uncertain and you’re unsure what to do and you look to other people to see what they’re doing, those other people are doing exactly the same thing. Everyone is uncertain, and everyone is looking to see what everyone else is doing.

The Kitty Genovese case

This all sounds interesting but rather academic and abstract. Why does it matter? To answer that, we need to go back to an infamous and deeply disturbing incident you may have read about or studied in a psychology class. On a night in May, 1964, a young woman named Kitty Genovese was attacked and stabbed to death on the street in New York City. (The area of the crime is shown in the photo above.)

According to initial newspaper reports, the attack lasted for about 35 minutes. During this time Miss Genovese repeatedly cried out for help, and–although more than 30 people heard her and some of them could see her from their windows–no one called the police.

Subsequent reports indicated that at least one person had called the police and that relatively few people could see Miss Genovese from their windows. Nonetheless,  people reading about the murder were horrified. Why did so many decent people hear her desperate cries for help and yet fail to act?  The follow-up investigation suggested that they failed to respond because of “apathy.”

How do people decide what to do in an emergency?

Two psychology professors, though, came to a different conclusion. Bibb Latane′ and John Darley suggested that no one had helped Miss Genovese because there were so many observers. A bystander to an emergency, they said, would be unlikely to help when there were a number of other bystanders present. Their reasoning was that:

  1. With several potential helpers around, the personal responsibility of each individual is reduced. If everyone is thinking that someone else will help or may have already helped, no one helps.
  2. Very often it’s not obvious whether an emergency is an emergency. Is the man lying in the alley, for example, a heart-attack victim or a drunk sleeping one off? What’s going on?

Latane′and Darley, their students, and other investigators did a great many studies of simulated emergencies. The results bore out the hypothesis of  the two psychologists:

When people are uncertain whether what they’re seeing is a true emergency, they look to see what everyone else is doing. Everyone else is doing the same thing, and so the bystanders are far less likely to assist the victim. In fact, the more bystanders there are who witness an emergency, the less likely any of them is to help the victim.

Strategy for saving your own life (or some one else’s)

To Dr. Cialdini , these studies suggest a strategy that you can use in an emergency to enormously increase your chances of being helped by others, that is, to increase your odds of saving your own life or some one else’s life.

In the Oh-God-I’m-Having-A-Stroke scenario, clearly, time is of the essence. If you lose your ability to speak or to move before someone helps you, your chances for assistance and for recovery would decrease dramatically.

Therefore, he says, you must clearly call out that you need assistance. You must not allow bystanders to see this as a non-emergency. And forget about being embarrassed. What does momentary embarrassment matter when you are facing possible death or lifelong paralysis?

Specifically, Dr. Cialdini recommends picking out one person in the crowd, calling out to him, and telling him exactly what you need, like this:

[staring, speaking, and pointing directly at one person in the crowd, you say]

You, sir, in  the blue jacket, I need help.  Call an ambulance.

By doing this, you dispel any uncertainty that might prevent or delay getting help. You put the man in the blue jacket in the role of “rescuer.” And you tell him exactly what he needs to do.

It really works: Dr. Cialdini’s Personal Experience

Amazingly, Dr. Cialdini had a personal experience which he describes in his book which allowed him to test this approach.

“I was involved in a rather serious automobile collision. Both I and the other driver were plainly hurt:  He was slumped, unconscious, over his steering wheel while I managed to stagger, bloody, from behind mine. The accident had occurred in full view of several individuals stopped in their cars at the traffic light. As I knelt in the road beside my door, trying to clear my head, the light changed and the waiting cars began to roll slowly through the intersection; their drivers gawked but did not stop.

I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s happening just like the research says. They’re all passing by!’ I consider it fortunate that, as a social psychologist, I knew enough about the bystander studies to have that particular thought. By thinking of my predicament in terms of the research findings, I knew exactly what to do. Pulling myself up so I could be seen clearly, I pointed at the driver of one car:  ‘Call the police.’ To a second and a third driver, pointing directly each time: ‘Pull over, we need help.’

The responses of these people were instantaneous. They summoned a police car and an ambulance immediately, they used their handkerchiefs to blot the blood from my face, they put a jacket under my head, they volunteered to serve as witnesses to the accident, one even offered to ride with me to the hospital.

Not only was this help rapid and solicitous, it was infectious. After drivers entering the intersection from direction saw, cars stopping for me, they stopped and began tending to the other victim. The principle of social proof was working for us now….”

The Lesson Learned

I was so struck with this information and Dr. Cialdini’s strategy and his personal experience that I immediately told my BF about it and then began writing this post. I think it’s the sort of information which is essential for you to have even though you (and I) hope that you never need to use it. Like learning how to do CPR or perform the Heimlich maneuver when someone is choking.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Madeleine Kolb 11/22/2009, 9:36 am

    Arvind, Thank you so much for sharing this example.This really is information that you hope you will never need but so essential if you do come upon an accident. I’m so glad that you knew exactly how to help.

  • Arvind Devalia 11/21/2009, 5:01 pm

    Madeleine, earlier on today I went for a walk and just 5 minutes from my home there was a car crash. It happened just a minute or two before I got there and the scene was just like in your post.

    The police had not arrived yet, and since no one was in charge, I took it upon myself to control the traffic that was building up.

    Your article really came in useful as I was very directive and pointed to some of the drivers to stop and when to go.

    Pointing, being assertive and giving clear instructions really helped me to take charge.

    I read your article earlier in the week and it was really timely.

    Thank you:-)

  • Madeleine Kolb 10/25/2009, 12:57 pm

    I agree that human psychology can be strange. The good thing about Robert Cialdini’s book is that it emphasizes that certain behavior, such as doing what other people are doing, works quite well most of the time. But not all the time. So, as you say, “we need to stop thinking of ourselves as a giant mass where everything is always someone else’s responsibility.”

    Thank you for sharing your recent example and for adding: “…don’t only use this info when you are a victim of an accident. Use it, whenever you see that help is needed also.”

    Your experience shows that all it takes is one person who stops to help.

  • Patrick 10/25/2009, 2:35 am


    this is an important article. I’ve witnessed an accident myself recently. And while I pulled over and helped the person get out of their car – others where just passing by, as you said. I had to command people to do several thinks, since the victim couldn’t do it at that time. And once I commanded 2 people, other where also stopping by.

    So don’t only use this info when you are a victim of an accident. Use it, whenever you see that help is needed also.

    Thank you for bringing this up.

  • Jeffrey Tang 10/24/2009, 1:52 pm

    A very, very interesting article, Madeleine. Human psychology is really a strange thing sometimes, especially when groupthink gets involved. I guess it’s just another reason why being an individual, taking responsibility as an individual, and seeing others as unique individuals is so important.

    It’s somewhat ironic that, in order to create a healthy society, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as a giant mass where everything is always someone else’s responsibility.

    Tweeted the post :) worth reading!

  • Madeleine Kolb 10/24/2009, 11:20 am

    Anastasiya, Thank you for your comment. The vivid examples are all from Dr. Cialdini’s book, and they really are “made to stick.”

    You raise a very good point about people passing by someone who is incapacitated and can’t ask for help. I’ve heard other examples, including the case of a young man with Type 1 diabetes who went into a diabetic coma and collapsed in a park. He lay there for hours while many people walked by.

    I believe that we should get help for someone who needs it for whatever reason and pray that someone will do the same for us should we need it.

  • Anastasiya 10/23/2009, 10:05 am

    It was a very helpful article Madeleine. The examples you gave are so vivid in my head now that I can’t stop thinking about them. I remember a similar situation when I lived in Ukraine. One of my neighbors had a stroke and he fell near the tree. I haven’t seen him but later I heard a few of my neighbors talking about this accident. At least 10 people passed by and nobody offered him help because everybody thought that he was drunk and didn’t want to interfere. This is a disturbing fact because very often we are so scared to get involved that we forget the consequences of our indecisiveness to other people. Your indecisiveness can cause somebody life or health. I really hope that nothing like this will happen to me or to people I know but I will definitely remember the advice that you have given in this post.