Home > news, rant > Empathy, murder, and the NRA

Empathy, murder, and the NRA

December 19, 2012

I’ve been having lots of dinnertime discussions with my kids about the following three news stories:

  1. the guy who was pushed into the subway and nobody helped him
  2. the Sandy Hook murders
  3. the Syrian uprising

When my son asked why people care so much about the kids murdered in Connecticut but not nearly as much in a random day when as many rebels are murdered by their government in Syria, I talk about how for whatever reason people have more empathy for individuals closer to them, and Connecticut is closer than Syria. It doesn’t feel good but it kind of makes sense.

But of course this doesn’t apply to the guy who was pushed off the subway.

And, speaking of the subway incident, let me be the person who stands up and says that yes, if I’d been there I would have tried to help that man get out of the subway tracks. There were 22 seconds to help him after the crazy guy fled.

For me the ethical obligations are obvious and the empathy I feel for strangers in danger is visceral. I’ve been in situations not entirely unlike this in the subway, and I saw firsthand how other people ran away and start talking about themselves rather than trying to help someone suffering, and it amazes and disgusts me.

It makes me wonder how we develop what I’ll term “working empathy”, to distinguish between someone who actually tries to help in real time and in a meaningful way when someone else is in pain versus someone who is gawking at arm’s length.

This New York Times article touches on it but doesn’t go very deep; it basically suggests we model it for children and talk about how other people feel. It also talks about how monetary rewards stifle empathy (which I knew already from working in finance).

I’m not wondering this abstractly or philosophically. I’m wondering it because if I had a good theory about creating and spreading working empathy, I’d try to join the NRA and apply the technique to see if it works on tough cases. As in, they actually try to prevent unreasonable guns in unreasonable places, not that they issue press releases.

Categories: news, rant
  1. dl
    December 19, 2012 at 8:56 am

    regarding the connecticut incident, it’s not so much that it’s geographical distance that matters, it’s the socioeconomic/ethnic distance that matters
    regarding the subway incident, how do you avoid not getting hurt yourself? I was thinking perhaps I would help:
    1. throw a garbage can in front of the subway to make the subway stop earlier
    2. ask the guy to lie down in the tracks which apparently the bystanders did try to do that
    3. ask the guy to run toward the far end of the tracks to allow the train a longer distance to stop
    4. take off my jacket and let the guy tie the jacket around him and i would try to pull him using the jacket
    but none of these methods seem like there is a high degree of success


    • December 19, 2012 at 9:01 am

      How about pulling him up with your hands? His arms were on the platform.


      • dl
        December 19, 2012 at 10:32 am

        In the event that I couldn’t pull the guy up then the guy would still grab onto my arm when the train hits him which would then drag me onto the tracks also. That was why in my 4th method I suggested using my jacket as an interface between me and him so that way I can decouple from him under my own will if necessary.


      • Nathanael
        December 23, 2012 at 11:39 pm

        It’s incredibly unsafe to try to help someone up off the tracks in *22 seconds*, and has low odds of success….

        Most subway stations were designed with “safety refuges” under the platforms for track workers to dive into in an emergency. So surely someone could have yelled “ROLL UNDER THE PLATFORM! ROLL UNDER THE PLATFORM!” If you flatten out in the “refuge” under the platform, that’s your best chance of survival. Then someone can call the dispatcher and get the trains out of the way so that the man can be rescued.

        Some older stations don’t have those and the “safety niches” are in a different place. Still, the thing to do is to dive into those.



  2. ham
    December 19, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Though i know nothing of the subway case (i am not from the US) it appears to be an example of the classic bystander effect.



    The important thing is conformity to what everyone else is doing and (implicit) diffusion of responsibility. The more people there are in a group, the less likely it appears to be that you will get help when in need.

    My psychology professor’s advice (if i recall correctly) was to never call out for help in general but always direct that call to a particular individual in the group. To break the spell as it were.

    I dont think empathy is really the issue and i would be very careful in stating that the social pressures inherent in this type of situation would not have affected you personnaly.


    • December 19, 2012 at 9:26 am

      I’ve been in situations like that, so I can say this. And I agree that calling out people and pointing at them would help. If I was having trouble pulling the guy up myself, I would have pointed at someone in the crowd to help me.

      If you object to me saying those people weren’t empathetic, that’s fine, and it’s terminology. It still begs the question, how do you get people to feel personally responsible in a situation like that, to break out of the bystander effect? That’s what I care about – working empathy.


      • Ham
        December 19, 2012 at 4:54 pm

        perhaps i did not express my self well. English is not my native language. I meant to point out the strong influence of the social context. Perhaps out of empathy for those who stood by… And now in all likelihood blame themselves.

        To break out of the bystander effect is i think difficult. Probably actual experience with acting in crisis situations will help. Although practicing such a unique cisis situation seems difficult.

        The other case, the shooting, which did reach news here needs massive system changes if you ask me. But i really can not understand that part of American culture.


        • mathematrucker
          December 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm

          Though not especially deep, the page at the link below might help you understand at least a little better this part of American culture.

          But first, so there is no confusion, here’s what led me to it:

          By coincidence, somebody with the same relatively unusual (just 11 in the U.S. according to whitepages.com) first-last name combination as mine lives in the same city where I grew up. Since one of my Google Alerts searches on my own name, I occasionally receive links to pages where he posts his viewpoints. By Murphy’s Law perhaps, this is where the coincidence explodes into smithereens.

          One such page showed up this morning in my inbox. It contains a link to the following page, which was posted just yesterday. With fervor and aplomb, this page presents at least a coherent, if not paranoid, rationale for continuing to allow American citizens to purchase assault weapons:



        • December 22, 2012 at 7:21 pm

          Americans were effectively disarmed after the first permanent standing U.S. armies were formed, following the War of 1812, and after Boston activated the first permanent standing U.S. police force in 1838. These weren’t ever supposed to become part of the picture. Hence, well-regulated (by members, not by government) miliitias being necessary, at the time the Bill of Rights was ratified, to the security of a free state that had parts under threat from the British, the French, the Spanish, hostile Indians, criminals, wild animals, and the possibility of the formation of state or federal militias that might start behaving as the British troops once had. Even then, the non-absolute right (“absolute right” is an oxymoron–think about it) not to be abridged was the right to bear “arms”, which were understood to not include extreme weaponry like the cannons that stood in village squares for village use–cannons that could never match the rapid killing power used in Newtown and Aurora.

          The role once played by ad hoc community organized militias is now served by law enforcement, military and individual citizens. Any attempt at reasonable regulation of gun ownership by citizens is rabidly opposed by the NRA, which is not a citizen lobby ideologically defending Second Amendment rights. The NRA is a self-serving industry lobby dedicated to any and all policies and practices that increase the sale of weapons and ammunition. The NRA has nothing to gain by doing anything other than encouraging Americans to be more paranoid and more violent.

          To deal with the remaining threats of criminals and wild animals, weapons capable of rapidly and efficiently killing large numbers of people are far more likely to be used for ill than for self defense (literal overkill in almost any conceivable circumstance) or any noble cause. The same weapons, for better or worse, would be paltry indeed in any attempt at use against the military-law enforcement-industrial arsenal complex.

          Even with the number of assault weapon-yielding rebels that could now be quickly pulled together via social media, the heartiest citizen militia would, for better or worse, be squashed like a bug by the smallest of American police departments in a matter of hours (in some cases, minutes).

          Assuming any value to armed uprising against oppressive government, the best hope of such uprising would lie in arming government less, not in haphazardly arming citizens more. And arming government less would obviate any need for everyone everywhere to be ready to shoot at any time.


        • December 31, 2012 at 7:12 pm

          In the period after the Revolution and before the adoption of the Constitution, armed citizen militias were indeed considered vital – including for fear of misanthropic government: Shay’s Rebellion (based in great part on confiscatory, dishonest bankers using bribed officials to scam and rob enraged patriots) was truly bloody and tragic, and (along with the later Whiskey Rebellion) will never be forgotten among justifiably paranoid, individualist country folk and urbanites alike.


  3. December 19, 2012 at 9:40 am

    It makes perfect sense to me that our strongest feelings of empathy are often for those nearest us and/or most like us. This hard wiring drives us to look out for ourselves, our young, our neighbors…if we let it, the world. We do, though, have intellect and moral capacity, as well as emotions and drives. So I don’t think we need to be ashamed of what we do or don’t feel. But we do have to hold ourselves accountable for what we do and don’t do–and that has to apply to those far away and to those with whom we share little obvious similarity.

    Love and empathy seem to have a lot in common. Maybe because there are levels at which each has to involve at least a little of the other. One major thing they seem to have in common, in least in the cultures with which I am most familiar, is that a lot of people seem to wrongly think of them as being synonymous or almost entirely overlapping with great rushes of warm emotion. Our popular culture fuels this constantly.

    I think we all sometimes fall into the trap of feeling that great rush of warm feeling, and thinking that having that feeling is enough–or of feeling guilty for not having more emotion, even though our actions are quite helpful. Feeling has to lead to some kind of helpful action. And the action often has to happen whether or not there is any great rush of emotion.

    It may or may not be all that difficult, during a rush of loving or empathetic feeling, to care for or rescue someone who is right in front of us, who will smile and thank us. Love, though, is, with no resentment, cooking dinner for the kids or helping to bathe an ailing parent when those specific tasks are the last things we feel like doing. Empathy might have to involve doing things few of us would ever feel like doing–things like overcoming fear enough to reach in front of a moving train to pull someone onto a subway platform. It is helping people we may never meet, whose existence and needs may always be abstractions to us, whose smiles and gratitude we will never experience.

    It’s talking intellectual and emotional satisfaction in doing things that offer no intrinsic intellectual or emotional satisfaction.


  4. December 19, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Di, there is definitely something to addressing individuals. Have you ever seen what happens if someone puts a sign in an office kitchen that says “Please make sure kitchen refrigerator gets clean on Fridays”?…Don’t count on seeing a clean refrigerator until specific people are asked to help out. It’s too often true that having the abstract “everyone” be responsible for something amounts to the concrete “no one” being responsible.


  5. December 19, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Some people must have just frozen during the subway incident. While that kind of freeze has happened to me, it has happened only rarely. I do disaster work and, like a few other people on this board, may be wired slightly differently than others in that I seem to be most efficient at shocking, frightening moments. I think that, for lots of people, it’s the opposite. I have a difficult time casting any moral judgements on what people do during the first seconds of a horrifying incident. I just hope that, somewhere nearby, there is someone who is wired, or trained, or self-trained to react.


  6. deb
    December 19, 2012 at 11:51 am

    As an aside, if you check the comments to the Nyt followup on the subway incident you’ll find many ways to be deal with the subway situation, depending on the station. From what I could tell, one of the best required just two people, each one interlocking wrists with the fallen person.


  7. December 19, 2012 at 11:59 am

    There is a known technique for increasing the likelihood of getting people involved. It is to directly address an individual, e.g., instead of “can somebody help me?” pick someone in the crowd and direct him or her directly to help (tell, don’t even “ask”, because that allows a “no” answer). Then that person has to make a real choice: the matter has become personal and concrete. Even better, ask specific people to do specific things.


  8. FogOfWar
    December 19, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    How about this: every single day (on average) in the US about three times more people are killed on the highway than died in Sandy Hook: 93 average fatalities per day (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year slightly dated by right magnitude). Not to lessen either tragedy, but why do we react differently to those two events?



    • 32000days
      December 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      There are a few reasons why people don’t react to this number.

      (1) Low density. Crashes that cause 1-2 highway deaths are distributed somewhat randomly over the vast land area of the US. A tanker full of gasoline crashing and killing 20 people would probably get on the national news because it all happened in one place.

      (2) Commonplace. A car crash is not “news” in the sense of being something truly uncommon – it’s pretty common. In contrast, a mass shooting is relatively uncommon.

      (3) Impersonal. Almost no car crashes are a result of personal malice or anger. While they may be more or less likely due to unsafe habits (e.g. drinking, texting), the drunk driver or texting driver is viewed as misguided (possibly criminally misguided) but not actively malicious. In contrast, shootings are extremely personal, in that the shooter is aiming at lashing out and hurting people (whether strangers or “loved ones”).


  9. mathematrucker
    December 19, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Your son evidently asks great questions (which of course is not the least bit surprising considering who his parents are).

    Clearly a reason for the unusually high level of empathy this time is that the Connecticut victims were mostly little kids. Submitting their photos to the mass media was an act of heroism: these photos travel in the HOV lanes of the American psyche.


  10. Bonnie Burstein
    December 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    “….I’m wondering it because if I had a good theory about creating and spreading working empathy, I’d try to join the NRA and apply the technique to see if it works on tough cases. As in, they actually try to prevent unreasonable guns in unreasonable places, not that they issue press releases…”

    Here’s the best theory and practice about creating and spreading working empathy I’ve seen in my 40+ years as a psychologist:

    Check out the work of Marshall Rosenberg -“Speaking Peace – Nonviolent Communication – The language of life.” He lays it all out. So simple. So Basic. So universal. He talks about human feelings and human needs and how to talk about this with each other. I came across his work 6 years ago and found it life changing!




    • December 21, 2012 at 2:56 pm

      Thanks, Bonnie, I’ve found it on Amazon. Great holiday reading!

      Love, Cathy


  11. December 21, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    I calm down in tumult, also. It’s definitely hard-wired in me. Always associated it with personal equilibrium. Finally all of that outside me equals that which is always going on inside. Attentional issues are relevant in my case I think.
    It follows that I rush to help. Which is different than empathy.

    We call liberals “bleeding heart”. Notwithstanding so-called “compassionate conservatism”, we often think of people who would support Bush/Cheney as selfish. I used to say George HW Bush had no empathy button.

    Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk on the moral roots of Liberals vs Conservatives (http://goo.gl/equs) reaches into this debate as well:

    “Suppose that two American friends are traveling together in Italy. They go to see Michelangelo’s “David,” and when they finally come face to face with the statue, they both freeze dead in their tracks. The first guy — we’ll call him Adam — is transfixed by the beauty of the perfect human form. The second guy — we’ll call him Bill — is transfixed by embarrassment, at staring at the thing there in the center. So here’s my question for you: which one of these two guys was more likely to have voted for George Bush, which for Al Gore?
    We all know that it’s Bill. And in this case, the stereotype corresponds to reality. It really is a fact that liberals are much higher than conservatives on a major personality trait called openness to experience. People who are high in openness to experience just crave novelty, variety, diversity, new ideas, travel. People low on it like things that are familiar, that are safe and dependable.”


  12. lvvvop
    December 22, 2012 at 8:46 am

    Last year my wife and I took our three girls to Europe. We’re in Italy on a long train ride, it’s hot, everyone else has a seat but me, I was stood by the doors. A few seconds out of the station a shifty looking guy decides he wants to get off, the doors were closed but he knows where the emergency door release is, he pulls the lever, the doors open and he’s gone. I don’t think anything of it, but the doors stay open and the train is now picking up speed. It isn’t safe; along with me by the doors is a family with young children. They seem oblivious to the danger, or perhaps don’t feel confident to speak up. I’m a foreigner and I don’t want to get involved, but the train doesn’t stop, or slow down, no one comes, it’s good few minutes before I decide it’s up to me to do something: I pull the lever in the opposite direction, the doors close, the family thanks me. I think nothing of it. Later an inspector came past, talks to the family, she then approaches me and thanks me too.

    Had I been in that subway station what would I have done? I don’t know: my sister thought she was drowning once and in the process of trying to calm her down she almost drowned me. Maybe if we replay that same incident with the same people the result would be different, who knows? But people forced into a corner don’t know how they’ll react until it actually happens, no one really does I guess.

    It reminds of a story I read when I was a lot younger “The whimper of whipped dogs.” by Harlan Ellison. It was based on the famous Kitty Genovese incident. It was pretty damning at the time, though it simply confirmed what I believed about people in general. I had occasion to reacquaint myself with that incident and it’s not nearly as cut as dried as it first appeared to be. I haven’t seen the video of the subway incident, but I doubt that’s cut and dried too.
    Everyday our petty inactions cause the death of someone, usually a long way away: we’ll never know them and we’ll never think there is something we can do to prevent it anyway. In Australia we’ll allow people to drown before we loose hold of the conceit that it is our right to deny the undeserved entry into OUR country!

    Human beings never fail to not rise to my exceedingly low exceptions of them.


  13. January 22, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    A good read on this topic is here, for anyone interested:



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