This week we started a unit on social psychology and began to discuss altruism and why most people do not help during an emergency. While it’s tempting to conclude that people are selfish or don’t care, numerous studies suggest this is untrue and that a host of other variables come into play: the number of people around, setting, how rushed people are, and so on. I hope students come away thinking more critically and that they’ll think twice the next time they scurry away from a situation that causes no danger to them. But I never urge them to help more because—who the heck am I to tell them what to do?
What I’ve been wondering about lately though is this. Hundreds of studies have been conducted on altruism, tens of thousands of psychology students have been apprised of these findings, yet the rate of helping is still pretty dismal. Are we forever doomed to keep our compassion in check because of split-second decisions that barely rise to the level of consciousness? I think so. And I don’t think I’m being pessimistic. This is who we are and this is how we’ll be tomorrow. (When people find out I’ve been teaching for a while, they invariably ask, So are students different today? I’m always at a loss. They’re not that different. They may be more distracted today because of their stupid cell phones, which will probably have long-term consequences—longer thumbs?—but for now, No, students haven’t changed that much in 30 years. They want what they’ve always wanted: to be cool. I want that too, though I seem to move farther from that goal each year.)
We’ve also been talking about the scientific method, which is a beautiful process when followed. But when I hear stories week in and week out about scientists who allow biases to creep into their work or scientific journals that decide what to publish based on some wallop factor or drug manufacturers that only publish studies favorable to their products and then hire professors to tout the positive results, I do become pessimistic. What to believe anymore?
I’ll give you an example that ties some of the above together. A while ago, a big newspaper asked world renowned violinist Joshua Bell to play in the lobby of a busy Metro stop one morning. They counted how many people stopped to listen, and almost no one did. About a thousand people marched right by. You can find a video of the “experiment,” which I’ve shown to classes, and their responses are predictable: what’s wrong with these people? The newspaper wondered the same thing, suggesting we’re callous and don’t have time for beauty anymore. I say, What did you expect? People were going to work. They needed to get there on time. How about using a control situation and having Bell play after work? It’s a compelling little video, but it doesn’t prove anything. I suspect that after work, crowds would have gathered.
All this reminds me of my favorite two-minute assignment that students did a week ago. I told them to simply pay attention as they walked through the halls. For example, if you’re approaching someone you know casually, how soon do you make eye contact? Do you follow that up with a nod, a comment, a half wave? How long do you keep eye contact? What if you don’t like the person? What methods do you use to pretend you don’t see the person? Do the lockers suddenly become the most fascinating things you’ve ever seen? Out in that hallway is high choreography! Demonstrating all this in class is hilarious because the decisions seem so familiar, and everyone comes to realize they’re universal. What’s even funnier is demonstrating what happens when these informal rules are broken, when eye contact is held too long or when a nod is exaggerated. Just as in emergency situations, our decisions are based on preservation of self-image, our boundless need to appear polite, and countless other social dictates—and if we pay attention, we can get a glimpse into the primitive snake brain inside each of us that controls these daily determinations more than we’d like to believe.