What Would We Do?

It’s the question being heard ’round the nation.

What would we do if we came across someone being harassed or attacked, as two teenage girls were on a Portland train last week? One girl, age 16, was black. The other girl, 17, was wearing a hijab. Both were victims of a vicious anti-Muslim tirade by a 35-year-old male white supremacist.

Would we step in to help, as three good samaritans did on that train? Or would we keep our heads down, stare at our phones and pretend not to notice?

Two of the men who came forward to help the girls were stabbed in their necks and lost their lives. Rick Best was a 53-year-old Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taliesin Namkai-Meche, 23, just graduated from college. A third helper, Micah Fletcher, 21, is a college student and poet. He survived and has been released from the hospital.

Do their deaths and injury change our answer to the question?

What would we do in a similar situation?

“I think that fear is a reasonable one that’s out there for people,” said UW psychology professor Cheryl Kaiser on KUOW’s The Record yesterday. “The Portland incident was at the far end of the extreme in terms of the clear and imminent danger.”

The great majority of incidents we encounter, Kaiser added, present little physical danger, like when someone makes a bigoted comment in an office, yet people will still stand by and do nothing.

It’s the “bystander effect.”

“When we’re in a large crowd and we encounter hateful rhetoric Our first reaction is to freeze, and we see the people around us doing the same thing. We read in their faces, ‘Maybe this isn’t a problem,'” Kaiser explained.

“Ironically, the larger the group gets, the less likely any one individual will step up and do something.”

People who do stand up are “shining examples” of “moral courage,” people like the Portland men and those who helped Jews during Holocaust. We look up to these people, as evidenced by the large outpouring of support we’re seeing for the train heroes this week.

Kaiser believes that the Portland event will ultimately inspire more people than it inhibits. In today’s political climate, many people are beginning to think — and talk about — what they would do and how they would do it. Hate crimes are up, as much as 20 percent in nine metro areas, since the election.

It turns out, simply learning about the bystander effect is one of the strongest predictors of whether a person will step in to do something.

So what’s the best way to respond when we witness anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-minority or other hateful speech directed toward an individual or group?

One idea, which was brought up by the host in the KUOW interview with Kaiser, is portrayed in the drawing below. I shared it on my blog before, when it was going viral right after the election. It’s based on a psychological concept called “non-complementary behavior.” It basically means doing the opposite of what the aggressor expects, to avoid further provoking him.


Another demonstration of this approach can be seen in a recent Buzz feed video that you can find here, or embedded in the Kaiser interview on KUOW’s website.

“It would certainly throw an attacker off guard by someone distracting the conversation,” Kaiser said. “…it seems like a reasonable strategy. ‘

But before you approach, she added, maybe ask someone else to call the police.


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