Leilah Bundesen-Magier

Teen Activities Director, Carnival Cruise Lines Miami, FL, USA

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Fight or Flight: How do we know?

If you heard or saw someone being murdered, would you help?

The murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 proved that we don't always react to situations the way we think we will. At least 38 people witnessed her murder and did nothing about it. We'd all like to think we would help in certain situations, but in the heat of the moment our reactions may differ.

If our instincts are not in line with our goals for altruism, what does this mean for the human race? In the end, can we really be trusted?

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    Nov 18 2013: I think most people will not jump between the shooter and the victim or tackle the gunman if the victim is a stranger but that almost anyone will call 911. This may depend in part on people's training. A former secret service agent or a former marine might tackle the shooter.
    • Nov 19 2013: I am with you, Fritzie. Good dog!

      I hope I would not bring a knife to a gun fight if you get the implication.
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    Lejan .

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    Nov 20 2013: Years later I heard an interesting radio talk about 'group paralysis' in which a psychologist explained what one can do to actually 'break' it. The key, he explained, is to directly address certain individuals within the group to either call for help or to ask for support. The individual one chooses must exactly know that he/she is the one addressed, which can be done by pointing at them, and naming the color of the shirt they are wearing, for example. This way, the 'frozen' individual gets another chance to act again, and the chances are high - according to the psychologist - that they'll do.

    So far this is only hypothetical to me, as I haven't tried this out yet and hope I never have to.
  • Nov 19 2013: Honestly, it depends on the situation.
    I'd call the police in practically any such scenario, but to actually get involved myself, I need realistic odds. I'm won't confront any gunman (though I'm not above attacking one from behind if I get the chance), and I certainly won't charge a lynch mob of twenty.

    All in all though, the less you trust the goodwill of strangers, the better off you'll be. Start off with the assumption you're on your own, this way you won't be caught unprepared even in a worse case scenario, and things will only improve if you're wrong.
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    Nov 18 2013: Difficult to know how one would react in such a situation without actually being there.
    That said, I'm not sure that we as a species are really altruistic. Being altruistic isn't something nature would select for I think.
    As a matter of fact, I'm not aware of any altruistic live form. Even in humans, what might appear as some altruistic act is done for getting something in return. This something might be subtle such as simple recognition or improved social standing.
    As to your last question, my answer is "no".
    • Nov 19 2013: Who can speak for another?

      If you know yourself, you know how you would react. I think that most people have altruistic leanings. But I I know that people see what they are looking for, and I see others doing good all the time without any apparent personal gain. Like the man who stopped on probably the most dangerous stretch of highway in Florida to hhold my hand after he saw my vehicle roll over into the mangrove. I was hanging upside down at the time because my seatbelt was latched, but he stayed with me until police and ambulance came. He did not get much recognition, no social reward to my knowledge.

      Is that what you consider altruism?
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        Nov 19 2013: I think I know myself pretty well, but still, without ever having experienced a particular situation I just can't say how I would react.
        As to the guy in Florida, holding your hand. That might have been just an impulse, and although you very much appreciated what he did, I wouldn't call that altruism.
        There are many things in life that we just do for no apparent reason.
        I'd call something altruism if it becomes a pattern that is constantly repeated.
  • Dec 1 2013: I would do something.
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    Nov 30 2013: I would speculate that it depends on the initial appraisal of the situation, whether we think we stand a chance or not.
    Our survival is most important. The appraisal is done at the biological level, backed by our thoughts, beliefs and experiences. What may play a role, is our relationship with the victim: if it is a family member, we may risk death and help. If not, your guess is as good as mine.
  • Nov 22 2013: Robert gave some great advice. All too often at a beach a child (who should be supervised and not be in the water) gets caught in a riptide and the parents (who it seems almost always is a poor swimmer) rushes in to save the child. The lifeguard has 2 people to save and not one. Better for the parent to stay out of the water, especially if they are not a good swimmer.
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    Nov 22 2013: Leilah, Jobs where fight is expected, like Army, police, etc ... , there are tests that take the no doubt about it flight people out of the program. That does not mean 100% accuracy. What does happen is intense training. Training takes over in emergencies. That still does not ensure the outcome.

    A meek housewife that cannot swat a fly becomes a tiger when her kids are threatened. A fighter may take his family out of danger or have second thoughts about engaging the target fearing for the future of his family. Charging into a shotgun is not smart even if you want to engage.

    Here is good advice. If you are not trained and equipped to take on this situation ... call 911, take cell phone pix, film the whole thing, see where he touches (for finger prints), tosses the gun / knife / what ever, pix of the car and if time license plate as he leaves, do not touch any evidence, control the scene until law enforcement arrives, make notes of what you saw or heard while they are fresh in your mind.

    You getting killed also will not help ... but the info you provide from above will help to rid the streets of this trash. It will not make you feel better about the victim but you will have fought in the best way you could.

    The answer is until you face the situation you do not know. Limit the fight to what you can win. Being a dead screws up your day real bad.

    Besides I am selfish .. I want to have a great cruise ... won't happen without you ...

    All the best. Bob.
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    Nov 20 2013: We can't know and only prepare our-selfs as good as possible.

    Personally - and experienced in situations less drastically - I call it the '3 seconds before freeze' window because any decision made after this very first moment are likely to be more on the rational side and less on the emotional one.

    But the good news is, that, to a certain extend, we can 'prepare' ourselves by 'mental training' to act closer to our self-made moral and to freeze less often.

    My personal 'freeze' happened on an interstate, where I barely made it pass an dramatic accident just in front of me, yet instead of stopping my car at the side to look and help those people involved, I drove on until it was to late to return. And although I called the police to sent an ambulance, I was shocked about myself to have failed my core believes in helping people in need.

    After some analysis of my behavior in this situation, which of course included all sorts of self-justification why I didn't stop, I came to the conclusion, that it was plain fear which kept me. Fear from what I may have witnessed and fear from not knowing what to do.

    What I did next was to get myself mentally in similar yet imaginary situations and to make it as 'horrible' as possible and in most cruel detail - beginning with blood and screams and ending with death and body-parts all over the place.

    The advantage of those 'virtual mind realities' are, that the scenarios are scalable and their only limit my own imagination. So I went through them at that time very often and do them every now and then ever since.

    The benefit I had - so far and one never knows - was, that I reacted instinctively in one other car accident I witnessed and in one which I, unfortunately, caused myself.

    My reaction time in each situation was below three seconds to decide to act, and once such a decision is made, there is no risk anymore to 'freeze' again.

    On murder I did some thinking too, yet there are to many variables to be certain of me ...
  • Nov 20 2013: If it goes bad, we made the wrong choice.
  • Nov 19 2013: It means we believe we are Separate.

    If 38 Cape Buffalo witnessed a murder of one of their own, they may ALL behave differently.....for they perceive themselves as a herd and tend to act in UNISON. Of course there are exceptions....

    It is the Separateness thing that is at the core of everything nasty in the world, on ALL parts of the spectrum of severity.

    It's the original Sin.......Sin, as in Missing the Mark. Everyone's got it.
    Great Tuesday to ye. :-)
  • Nov 19 2013: All our choices are subject to risk assessment, consciously or unconsciously. This doesn't require an extreme situation, such as the Kitty Genovese example. Having taught human communication and public speaking for more than 30 years, I have regularly observed the fight-or-flight struggle when people are confronted with a choice that they perceive to have significant risk. When we perceive risk, we seek to either avoid the risk or mitigate it. Sometimes it can be mitigated through education or training (an EMT, for example, might be expected to respond to an emergency differently than an untrained respondent); or through technology (in 1964, for example, 911 wasn't available in the U.S., and telephones were land lines). If we feel that the risk to us, for whatever reasons, is greater than the benefit to us, of any kind, then we will choose flight. When the potential benefits are perceived as greater than the risk, we will fight (with resistance being a form of "fight").
    Altruism might be defined as an action which has higher order benefits. When we act altruistically we receive benefits in self-esteem, self-identity, perhaps even in the esteem of others; but not necessarily material benefits, such as profit or tangible reward. There may even be material and physical risks to altruistic behavior, but the altruistic actor sees these as worth the risk in order to gain the non-material benefits.
  • Nov 19 2013: I heard one psychological theory was that each person thought someone else would get-around to helping.
    I'm not well-versed in the mindsets o fpeople in 1964; if it were recent, I would say that people spend too much time reading, (giving weight to "brain"), instead of more physical pursuits, (marital arts, contact sports), which would give more kinesthetic or somatosensory knowledge - an ability to honor and act-on the body's inherent ideomotor drives.
    I think our instincts are becoming ever-more numbed, both by idealisms, food additives, environmental pollutants, etc.
    I think that we will not get to an end - we will always have the chance to learn from our mistakes, I hope.

    In addition to "fight or flight," I've also read of other options, such as "posturing," and maybe "submission."
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    Nov 19 2013: Leilah, if you want more time on this, click "edit" and add time. Right now you have 13 hours.

    Leilah, I believe I've read that there were many reasons why people didn't help Kitty besides just apathy, I believe for example part of the attack happened in an isolated stairwell.
  • Nov 19 2013: Yes.

    I was 12-13 when Kitty was murdered, and remember it well. I just could not believe that none of those people did anything. Like every dog that I have known, I would begin by barking - as loud and as much as I could. While screaming threats and epithets, I would grab a phone and dial 911. If anyone was with me, I would have that person talk to the police while I shouted and threw things.

    In the heat of the moment I generally trust myself. My reactions are good and I trust my impulses, although I did once get a bloody nose trying to stop a fight.

    I cannot say if this has to do with altruism or just a sense of right and wrong. Nor can I speak for we, but when I see something that is clearly wrong I will speak up. Yes, there are gray areas where no one is being physically hurt, but maybe someone is shoplifting. I would not try to judge a stranger -I do not know if it is mine to interfere,but if it was food or drink, I would probably try to pay for it, perhaps even claim that I had once accidentally left the store without paying for one of those and was therefore only trying to make it right. Then it is up to the clerk or attendant.

    I wish someone could tell me how a person could not excuse not at least calling police if someone was being attacked.