A woman in South Philadelphia exits the subway and begins the three block walk to her residential townhouse. Arriving home, she looks up the narrow flight of stairs to see a man wrapped in a tarp in front of her door. Unsure of what to do, she stops. She waits. She looks around for help.
A look of unease comes across her face. Several commuters pass her by. Many by car. Some by bicycle. A few on foot. Of those who do walk by, two or three make the concerted effort to look at her, then at the man sleeping on her steps, then back at the woman herself. They all say nothing. While some contemplate an offer off assistance. Their eyes half-hope the woman won’t engage. Relieved when she doesn’t speak first, they continue on without ever looking back. The woman is too embarrassed to ask for help, yet too frightened to ascend her steps alone. Twenty minutes and thirty people pass her by, until eventually, a young college girl notices the woman in turmoil, and asks if she’s alright.
Prosocial behavior refers to “voluntary actions that are intended to help or benefit another individual” (Eisenberg and Mussen 1989, 3)…And while the motivations behind such acts may be difficult to predict, be they kin selection, the reciprocity norm, or the empathy-altruism hypothesis — one core concept can not be overlooked: Everyday safety requires the participation of everyone.
It’s easy for government bodies and administrative agencies to try and steer the vessel of public safety in the right direction with strategies like “If you see something, say something” but even with the ship pointed toward safer shores, it still requires the participation of the public to paddle.
Battlefield commanders can’t simply point to the top of a hill, and with a boisterous, “Charge!” make it their own. They must communicate their intent with clear, direct, and specific sets of instruction so that the individual soldiers understand the plan, know exactly where to go, and know exactly what to do once they get there.
Ensuring the public safety is no different. We’ve become so focused on the over-arching security policies that we’ve forgotten to educate the public on how to implement effective strategies into their everyday safety practices.
Think back to the last time you saw something that you knew was out of place. A time when something, “just wasn’t right.” Were you alone? Did you give a puzzled look to someone else who was witnessing the same thing? What did you do next? Did you initiate an offer to help?
In the aftermath of tragedy, coworkers, friends, and the general public at large come forth in droves with eyewitness accounts and information about suspicious activities that were witnessed leading up to the event. So why didn’t they say something before hand?
The Bystander Effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders.
Perhaps a more common explanation, is deeply rooted in our social pre-disposition to avoidance — a well-established, self-defense strategy deeply grounded in the false narrative of the “it won’t happen to me” mindset.
Our internal sense of defense is so finely tuned for ensuring our personal safety that it automatically acts as a filter to let us know what is good and what is bad. Unfortunately, we have socialized ourselves to rationalize our intrinsic survival instincts away from our better judgment. We too often negotiate against our natural ability to protect ourselves — shutting down our “Gif of Fear” — so as not to offend the feelings of those who intended to do us harm.
We must be prepared to participate in our own safety. We can no longer afford to live on the fringe of the pendulum swinging between hyper-vigilance and complacency. Our goal should be to re-frame the social dynamic from avoidance and fear to one of awareness and empowerment.
Everyday safety requires the participation of everyone. Our willingness to help another is often the first step toward protecting ourselves.
Spencer Coursen is a nationally recognized threat management expert who has an exceptional record of success in the assessment, management, and resolution of threats, domestic and global security operations, investigations, policy authorship, and protective strategy.