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Updated 30 October 2015

CyberShrink: superheroes do more harm than good

CyberShrink questions the motives of people who 'rush in where angels fear to tread' and attempt to do heroic deeds, often at great danger to themselves.

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Recently international headlines were ablaze with the story of how a group of five men on a French train disarmed a terrorist before he could start shooting passengers.

Legion of Honour

In South Africa the story barely raised a ripple of interest, but the French Government reacted exuberantly and awarded them the highest French decoration, the Legion of Honour, which seems a little over the top to me.

Curiously, not long afterwards, Spencer Stone, one of the three Americans who helped disarm the terrorist in France, was stabbed in an altercation after visiting a gay nightclub in Sacramento, California, with some friends.

Read: Terror takes mental toll

The stabbing incident was not terrorism-related in any way and his injuries were not life-threatening. It seems as if Stone got involved in a brawl while protecting a woman. 

Although unproven, it would seem that Stone has a tendency to get involved as in dangerous situations in the role of a “hero” or “rescuer”.

Are these people suicidal?   

This kind of behaviour fits a model, called indirect self-destructive behaviour, or ISDB.  

A classic and ground-breaking book, The Many Faces of Suicide, edited by Norman Farberow, explores the idea that many essentially self-damaging and ultimately self-destructive behaviours should, but are not actually recognised as being equivalent to suicide.

For instance, there are people with serious diseases who refuse proper treatment and die as a result. People who engage in high-risk sports, like skydiving, hang gliding, and rock climbing also enjoy “dicing with death”. Another study found that when such devotees of extreme sports are injured sufficiently to be unable to continue their sport, their suicide rate becomes higher than average.

Others who risk death are “interveners”, i.e. people who get involved in dangerous “criminal” situations like muggings and bank robberies. Researchers found that these people were not motivated by a preceding idea of reward, most of them saying they responded almost automatically without thinking about their own safety.

Read: How to handle getting mugged

One isn’t sure whether to label these people, who are almost always men, as altruistic risk-takers or self-destructive maniacs. Many of them have police, lifesaving or medical training and regard themselves as competent, effective, physically strong and aggressive. Interestingly they tend to ignore the victim in favour of pursuing the offender. Other studies indicate that “interveners” were likely to repeat their “acts of bravery” regardless of any threat of personal harm.

So, if Spencer Stone can indeed be labelled as an intervener, it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that he jumped into another high-risk situation where he incidentally was a lot more seriously injured than on the train in France.        

What, actually, is bravery?

There’s a saying that bravery is the kindest word for stupidity. I’ve long been puzzled at the range of behaviours labelled as brave. Many of these actions seem to me to be just plain stupid. Often people are “brave” when they’re just not intelligent enough to realise the results of their actions. Others, again, are so impulsive that they act before thinking. Sometimes these actions are useful and end up saving lives, but often they’re merely interfering and actually make things worse.

There could actually be an increase in "intervening behaviour" in our current era, where the most popular theme in major films is the impossible exploits of invulnerable superheroes, with “superpowers”, saving the world from far-fetched, non-existent dangers, while ignoring real problems.

People who engage in extreme sports aren’t brave at all; they just like or need the thrill of toying with danger. Do I approve of their hobbies? I feel like the late great actress, Mrs Patrick Campbell, who, when asked about male homosexual relationships, reputedly replied: “I don't care what they do, so long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses.”

Read: The dangers of skydiving

I don’t see it as brave when people deliberately choose to place themselves at risk, and then expect applause or admiration for doing so.  That’s no more sensible than expecting to be appreciated for having dreadful handwriting or bad breath. 

Real courage

Courage seems more valuable: the capacity to do something for the greater good, something pretty sure to benefit others, even though you’re aware that doing so will involve real danger to yourself. It’s a choice you make in a situation where you could run away, or ignore the situation.

A line in a recent song by the group Panic! at the Disco states: "The only difference between martyrdom and suicide is press coverage." The press makes a fuss about any “have-a-go hero”, an ordinary member of the public who, at some risk, intrudes into a crime scene.

Read: Multiple media use tied to depression

A Google search uncovers a steady stream of such stories: someone thinks a criminal’s gun is fake, and stops an armed robbery; someone challenges a car thief and gets beaten up; a brave pensioner tries to stop a yob stealing a minibus, and is run over; a mother dies from her injuries after trying to break up an argument in the street, etc., etc.

Sometimes the attempts succeed, but most of us, however well-meaning, are not equipped to intervene successfully, and often end up badly injured or dead. 

In highly volatile situation it’s generally best to go the nearest safe place, and call the police for help. Only if you’re unable to avoid involvement, and you’re sure your actions can be helpful, should you try to get the victim and yourself to a position of safety. Getting injured yourself generally doesn’t improve the situation or help the primary victim.

Read: Police stress creates health risks

Make note of details like the appearance of the criminal, vehicle numbers etc. It’s important to be a good citizen, but in a manner that is actually helpful, rather than just emotionally satisfying. Prepare to be a good witness. Discretely use your phone camera to take pictures of the crime and criminals.

When people refuse to get involved

It’s puzzling how, on the one hand, people interfere in dangerous situations, yet ignore people who need help in a non-threatening situation, like when someone collapses in the street. This raises the question if is getting involved in a risky situation is prompted by an urge to be a hero, rather than helping someone in need.

There is another well-recognized phenomenon, called the bystander effect. It’s based on the long-standing observation that people are less likely to intervene to help a victim when there are a lot of other people are around. Contrary to expectations, the more people are around, the less likely it is that anyone of them will help.

In some parts of the world, like Germany, the law makes it a crime not to help someone in danger – as long as it is safe to do so – or not to call for help. 

When bystanders just stand there

The phenomenon was first studied after the notorious murder of Kitty Genovese, in 1964. She was attacked by a serial rapist and murder on her way home at night, and was reported to have screamed and pleaded for help during a 30-minute attack. According to reports there were 38 witnesses who saw and heard the attack from their homes, but did nothing, not even calling the police, until the attacker had left and the woman was dead.

Read: Rape stats alarming: Radebe

In the Larry Froistad case in 1998, he posted in an online support group for alcoholics, that he’d deliberately got drunk and set fire to his home, killing his daughter. Over 200 people were online at the time, but only 3 reported the murder to the authorities, and some even defended him or insisted this must be a fantasy.

In 2008, Esmin Green collapsed in a hospital waiting room after waiting nearly 24 hours for treatment. Other patients, staff and 2 security guards ignored her, and she died within an hour. The staff falsified their records to minimise the issue. There have been other similar events.

In 2011, Raymond Zack, 53, walked from a California beach into the water, and stood there neck-deep for an hour. His mother called 911 and said he was trying to drown himself. Police and firemen arrived but didn’t get their feet wet. They called the Coast Guard while dozens of civilians watched. Everyone waited for someone else to go into the water and pull him out. Eventually, when he collapsed, presumably from hypothermia, a civilian went in and brought him to shore. He later died in hospital.

The world would truly be a better place if more people were prepared to help someone in need in a situation where there’s no personal danger to them, rather than trying to be heroic in a dangerous situation. 

Read more: 

Why terrorists choose soft targets

SA's quiet heroes

Everyday heroes

Reference:

The Many Faces of Suicide: Indirect Self-Destructive Behaviour. Ed. Norman Farberow. McGraw Hill, New York, 1980. 

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.

 

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