In October, 2011, a plane crashed on a busy road in Vancouver, Canada, and a number of passers-by stepped up, some even racing into the flames to pull out burning victims. Surprising? Not really when you consider the effects of psychological phenomena such as desensitization and altruism.
What is desensitization? Thanks to social media ours has become a culture without boundaries. People regularly tell-all, and many are willing to share photos of an increasingly intimate nature. The media delivers news, and with it, 24/7 instant access to disturbing and traumatic images. And You Tube has allowed such moments to go viral. Case in point: Last month the most downloaded video depicted an Indy racer's violent car crash.
The proliferation of violent images in our culture has caused us to become desensitized to trauma. Where some years ago spectators of a crash might have been immobilized at the sight of burning wreckage, today we have seen it all before on our TV sets and laptops, and we have become inured to the shocking and violent nature of such images. Instead of being paralyzed with fear, desensitization freed on-lookers from paralyzing anxiety, enabling them to help at the moment of crisis.
But, those who ran out to save others were more than just good samaritans; their heroism rises to the level of altruism. This term generally refers to behaviors that are performed with no expectation of reward. That was certainly the case last week in Vancouver—even as those who rushed in might have received a personal benefit, tantamount to an unexpected reward, of feeling good or being relieved of the anxiety or discomfort they felt coming upon the grisly scene.
Something called "the herd mentality" was also in play at the crash site. Groups have a mind of their own. To learn more about this--and the heroes on that Vancouver road-watch my recent interview on Connect with Mark Kelley, a Canadian news show. Don't forget to fast forward about 15 minutes into the program--and thanks for watching.