One of the things I used to wonder about when I was younger was how I’d react to a fight situation. I did a bit of boxing and karate as a youngster so I theoretically knew how to handle myself. But what about the real thing? If a couple of tough guys started making trouble what would I do? Would I just stand there and freeze? Turn and run away like Carl Lewis? Or stand my ground and make mincemeat out of these punks like Chuck Norris? It was a pointless thing to think about but people’s reaction to unexpected events is an interesting one. (For the record, when I got older I learned that the best approach is to run away rather than give a Bruce Lee style beating to somebody).
The answer is that you don’t know how you’ll react to a given situation until you encounter it. The exception is if you have training, such as military, that conditions you to stay alert in such situations and not “stick to the program”. It turns out that most people freeze and resort to the fright response. It all comes down to the fact that most people follow scripts in their lives. This can be clearly illustrated by an example.
A few years ago in the US, a large fire broke out in a shopping mall. Quite a lot of people died, but investigators couldn’t understand why. There were plenty of fire exits and plenty of warnings before the fire raged out of control. Further study showed why so many died needlessly. A large concentration of the bodies were found in a restaurant. When the fire had spread the staff ran, but a number of customers stayed and continued to stay while the flames licked around them. Get this: they were waiting to pay for their food. It’s all about scripts.
When you walk into a coffee shop you expect to get a table, have an order taken, drink your tall cafe latte, pay the bill and walk out. You assume that everybody else will follow the script and you don’t give it a second thought. In fact a great deal of social interactions like that are learned and then subsequently followed to the letter. But when somebody changes the script or you encounter something completely unexpected, quite often people’s brains just switch off and a vacant look glazes over their eyes.
Douglas Adams (author of “The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy”) once mentioned a SEP field. It was a way of hiding something from people by making it “Somebody Else’s Problem”. The example was the appearance of a large spaceship at a cricket match, which nobody noticed because it was painted bright pink. The idea of a pink spaceship landing at a cricket match was so preposterous that nobody would believe it and therefore nobody saw it. In a sci-fi kind of way, that’s exactly what happens in real life.
Just a few miles from my house a man was beaten to death on a busy road in the early evening a year or so ago. The fight will have been witnessed by perhaps 100 people driving past. But did anybody stop? No. Street muggings happen all the time and people don’t intervene. Maybe it’s self preservation, not wanting to be one of those have-a-go-heroes that end up dead. I can accept that, if five shaven headed muscle-bound monsters are beating up somebody I wouldn’t expect someone to step in, roll up their sleeves and go to work on them. That’s suicide. But unnecessary inaction happens on a much lower level than fights and muggings.
For instance, when I was in an Amsterdam nightclub, one of the guys collapsed down the stairs. Myself and two others sprang to our feet to assist (one was in such a state that he needed to sit down himself) but not everybody reacted. No disrespect to them, but that’s what most people do, and it’s a human condition. I remember one time in Dundee seeing a guy wandering around, clearly disoriented and with a large gash on his head that had been bleeding profusely. But he might as well have been wearing Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. People were just turning a blind eye and pretending not to notice. Road traffic accidents are the same, most people will just drive on by, slow down to have a good look, and assume the somebody else will call the police or try to help. Hey, maybe it’s a fear of getting involved in an unsavoury circumstance.
Well, I just want to say for the record that I do react. And I don’t freeze. Maybe it was having a father in the army or climbing in the dangerous mountains of Scotland, but I’ve been quite pleased to see how I react to unexpected situations. I’m lucky in that I stay calm under stressful situations and manage to think rationally, which has come in handy a few times. And I’ll tell you one thing, if I’m in a restaurant and it’s burning down, I’ll not be looking around for a waiter to pay the bill, I’ll be getting the hell out of dodge.