Why Good People don’t always do the Right Thing
After being awarded a medal of Bravery from the Lieutenant Governor for saving a young woman’s life from a deadly house fire, I was left confused as to why I was the person who stepped in while the bystanders that day couldn’t even speak up and call 911. While I was doing something that seemed like the obvious right thing to do – they stood by and did nothing. I looked for answers and found them in a phenomenon of our human nature called the “Bystander Effect”. Watch or listen to the talk I presented at Flip the Script Storytelling event and learn more about why good people don’t always do the right thing – and more importantly, what we can do about it.
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On June 28th, I graciously received the Silver Medal of Bravery from the honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario for saving a young woman from a house fire who was trapped. The fire sent two people to hospital and had 28 firefighters respond on March 19, 2018 in the City of Vaughan.
Although I was grateful for the recognition and the medal that I received, I was also somewhat confused because I really didn’t feel like a hero. I was just in the right place – at the right time – doing what I thought was the right thing.
But even so, many were hailing me as a hero. I was also confused because I was the only one that did something that morning of the house fire – and so many other people did nothing.
So, I was very curious and asked myself; why do good people not always do the right thing? Why did those people do nothing? Why didn’t they take some type of action – when action was what was required to save the young woman’s life?
I wasn’t the only one confused about this bizarre behaviour, because at the medal ceremony event, another medal recipient had told me a similar story. While travelling on a bus with about 40 people on board, she realized the bus was out of control as it barrelled down the Highway 401.
She was the only one that got out of her seat to see if she could help the driver while the others were frozen with fear and remained in their seats. She discovered that the bus driver had fallen unconscious right on top of the steering wheel. She tried to move the bus driver, but she was too heavy. So, she crawled underneath him, took his foot off the accelerator, and with her other hand, she braked the bus to a final stop and avoided an imminent disaster.
Incredible story and very heroic, but again, she was confused because everyone on that bus except her – did nothing.
This promoted me to do some research on this type of behavior, where good people don’t always do the right thing. I found out that not speaking up, standing up, or steppping in during crissis is a commonality amongst us. In fact, it’s part of our human nature and has been called the Bystander Effect.
Watch the video or listen to the podcast to hear the talk I presented at Flip the Script Story Telling Event where I recount my story of the house fire where I saved a young woman’s life and learn why good people don’t always do the right thing – and more importantly – what we can do about it.
Inspire to aspire,
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It’s March 19th, 2018 and it was just a few days prior that I had shoulder surgery, they reattached my rotator cuff and my arm was in a sling and wasn’t gonna be any good for at least another three months. So, as I tried to stumble off the toilet and put my pants on with one arm and stumble out the bathroom door and Mandy ushers me outside our front door and points at the house just right beside us. It’s engulfed in flames and outside is the owner of the home. It’s the grandfather and he’s holding onto the one year old baby, he doesn’t have his shirt on, just his pants and right beside him is his youngest daughter’s boyfriend and he has nothing on but his underpants. And they’ve got this look of horror as they’re watching their home being engulfed in flames. Just then, the oldest daughter runs out screaming in hysterics. She’s completely stark naked. I run over to her and I say, is anyone in the house? She says, “Yes, my sister, she’s trapped upstairs.” So I go over to the door. And this door has this black noxious smoke bellowing out of it, it starts at the ceiling and goes down to maybe 12 inches above the ground. I’m afraid, I’m afraid because if I go into this house, I might not come back out alive. But I’m also afraid that if I don’t go in, I might regret it for the rest of my life because a life will be lost upstairs. So in that instant I decide to go in. I can’t see anything. With my one arm, I’m trying to find the railing of the staircase. I get halfway up the stairs and I retreat. Defeated, I couldn’t breathe anymore. I was gonna die and I knew it. And I retreated in defeat back to the staircase, back outside, I stumbled around and by then, all of the neighbors had come and they’d lined up on the road like it was an audience. They were seeing what the commotion was. And I looked at ’em and I said, has anyone called the fire department? Has anyone called 911? And they looked back at me, just like you are right now. Nonresponsive, Mandy knew I was frustrated and she called 911. I knew the fire department wasn’t gonna be there for some time, so I turned back. And I looked at that doorway still bellowing with smoke. And I thought to myself, I can’t be the hero that goes upstairs and carries her out with one arm. So I remembered what I was taught a long time ago as a coach that you can only bring people or a horse to the water, and that’s exactly what I did. I went back in a second time, but this time, I got underneath the smoke and I crawled with my one arm to the staircase and I could hear her screaming upstairs for help. You see, a lot of people die of smoke inhalation. And a lot of people could have left the fire, but they’re frozen and they hide from the fire. And that’s how they die. So as I’m making my way up the stairs, I’m coaching, yelling, at her to come down the stairs. And I’m getting somewhere with her ’cause I can hear her voice getting closer. And I’m about halfway up the stairs. And then I saw it, it was like an apparition that I will never, ever forget. It was her small foot and it was draped in a blanket that she was using to shield herself. And when I saw that foot, it was this overwhelming sense of joy because I knew she was gonna live. And a lot of relief as you can imagine. So I grabbed her quickly and I ushered her outside the house to be reunited with her family and her boyfriend. That was a four-alarm fire where 28 firefighters responded. Two people went to hospital. One of the firefighters was evacuated out of the home because his fire helmet had melted from the intense heat. Mandy’s maternal instincts kicked in and she got everybody blankets and when the ambulances arrived, she actually brought them to the ambulance attendants for care. So, when I think back about that day, I’m sort of confused because they made a big deal about it. As you’ve already heard, I got a Citation for Bravery from the Mayor of Vaughan and just two weeks ago, I don’t normally carry this around with me, but I brought it for you here tonight just to show you. This is a Silver Medal of Bravery and this was given to me by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario just two weeks ago. I graciously accepted both of those awards, but again, I was somewhat confused because I really didn’t feel like a hero because really, I was just in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. Yet they wanted to award me with these gifts. I was also confused because I was the only one that did something. And so many other people did nothing. I don’t think I’m special, so I was very curious. Why did those people do nothing? I wasn’t the only one confused because at this event, another medal recipient had told me a similar story. An amazing heroic story that she participated in when a bus that she was on with 40 or some odd people was going out of control, barreling down the Highway 401 because the bus driver had fallen unconscious right on top of the steering wheel. She was the only one that got up. She tried to move the bus driver, but she couldn’t do that. So she crawled underneath him, took his foot off the accelerator, with her other hand she braked the bus to a final stop and avoided obviously, an imminent disaster. Incredible story, but again. She was confused just like me because everyone on that bus except her did nothing and she’s the one that did something. So, I did some research and I found out that this is a phenomenon with humans. It’s in our human nature, it’s called the bystander effect. It was coined by a couple of social scientists, John Darley and Bibb Latane back in the 60s. You may be familiar with the story, it was quite famous. They were studying a very high profile murder case where in Brooklyn New York, there was someone called Katherine or Kitty Genovese, and she was coming home from work in the early morning and she was trying to get into her apartment building. And there was an attacker waiting for her. He attacked her for 10 minutes and they knew from reports that there was at least 40 plus people that had witnessed it from the windows in the apartment buildings that surrounded where the attack took place. But yet, no one did anything, accept this one man. He rolled up the window and he said, “Hey, hey you, you leave that woman alone!” And he left, but he came back. Kitty was so injured that she crawled to a door to the apartment, but it was locked. And 10 minutes later, there he was again. He stabbed her, he raped her, he took $50 from her and he fled. And Kitty, she died on route to the hospital. So if that’s the bystander effect, why does it happen? And there’s another psychologist, Melissa Burkley who basically said, there’s three reasons. On reason’s quite obvious, I think to all of us. It’s called fear and fear is a big demotivator for human beings, isn’t it? So, when we get into fear, we’re also fighting our natural responses, it’s called our sympathetic nervous system. It allows us to fight or flight as we heard earlier from that amazing talk that Luke did. And there’s another state, it’s called being frozen. It’s sort of like in purgatory where you actually can’t do anything because we can’t fight biology. It’s much stronger than we are. So that’s reason number one. Reason number two is more social and this is where Melissa talks about a pool. If you can imagine that there’s a pool with kids swimming in it. And over here there’s some parents that are onlooking, along we us, me over here. So what would happen if one of the children started thrashing around and could be drowning? What we would do, and research proves this, we’ll look over at the other parents first to see what they’re reaction is. What kind of body language do they have? Are they laughing? Maybe this is a joke, I don’t want to be the joke that jumps into the pool with all of my clothes on when this is just a farce, maybe for YouTube or Instagram. The third reason is very similar in the sense that it involves more people because what if these people here are more responsible than we are? It’s called diffusion of responsibility. So first of all, maybe someone knows CPR. Maybe someone knows how to swim better than I. And by the way, if there’s four parents over there and we’re over here, one, that’s simple math. I only have 20%, we only have 20% of the responsibility to save this child, maybe we shouldn’t jump in. So, what am I getting at here? Am I saying that we are completely destined to be operated by our human nature and that most of us will be bystanders, that a hero is someone that’s very special in society? Well no, because all that it requires us to do is stand up, speak up in some cases and if necessary, to step in. But here’s the problem with that. That requires bravery. And bravery is not inherent, it’s not instinctual. It’s a learned practice. Anyone that does these courageous acts, the people that were up here today, they know what I’m talking about. This is one of many, this is our practice, why? Because when we need to be brave, we wanna summon it. And it will be there because we’ve done the work. So for example, if someone is in need, then maybe we’re going to give them the assistance. We’re gonna step in, maybe it’s to open a door, right? Or maybe it’s to help someone that’s on the side of the road that has a breakdown for example, right, in their car. Or maybe you see some bullying going on or maybe you see some stuff going on in the workplace that just isn’t right and you’re gonna speak up. Those are the courageous acts that allow us to summon the bravery when we truly need it. Here’s the thing. All we need to do is not run into a burning house just to save a woman. We don’t need to jump into the pool to save a child. We just have to do something rather than nothing because we’re all heroes here in this room tonight. Don’t look at anyone, just clap.