ONE AFTERNOON last summer, I was on a commuter train when I heard someone yelling behind me. I didn’t pay attention because I was breaking up a fight between my kids. But the third time the person yelled, I turned around.
It was a boy, about six years old. He was standing on his seat screaming, “My mom’s having a seizure!” The only part of his mom I could see were her legs, sticking out into the aisle, convulsing. And arrayed around the train car were forty other people, mouths open. Not one of them doing a thing.
Humans tend to freeze like this — the Bystander Effect, it’s called. It was first demonstrated in a famous psychology experiment by John Darley and Bibb Latané in which the subject was asked to fill out some forms. He or she assumed these forms were preparatory to the experiment, but the experiment had already begun. While the person circled multiple-choice answers, smoke began to sneak out of a vent in the room. Thick, gray smoke. The kind that says fire. The experimenter then timed how long it took for the subject to leave the room.
The only variable was whether there were other people in the room. These people pretended to be subjects also, but actually they were actors paid by the experimenter to stay there, heads down, pencils working, ignoring the smoke. If the subject was alone in the room, 75 percent of the time she or he would leave inside of a minute. But if there were others in the room working away on their forms, the subject would stay there with them — 90 percent of the time. Stay there filling out forms until the smoke was too thick to see through. Until, if there had been a fire, it would have been licking at the walls.
In the decades since that first experiment, it’s been repeated with many variations on the type of emergency: staged robberies, lost wallets, people in hallways crying for help, etc. Every time, if there was more than one person witnessing the event, all of them were almost certain to do nothing.
So the boy on the train was loudly identifying this as a true emergency, his mother physically demonstrating the urgency of the matter. Still everyone sat there, mouths open. Half of them had cell phones, but not one of them was dialing 9-1-1. Remember this fact: although we feel safer in a crowd, that’s actually where humans are most incapacitated. The bigger the crowd, the stronger the effect.
Right now everyone understands that something truly horrible is happening to the planet’s climate. The heat waves and forest fires, the floods and droughts. But there are 6 billion of us now — quite the Bystander Effect. So we stay in our seats filling out forms, trying to ignore the smoke swirling thicker around us. We bustle about our normal lives, assuming it can’t be as bad as it seems because surely, then, everyone would be marching in the street about it.
On the train with the epileptic mother, I stepped forward, yelling out, “Someone call 9-1-1! Someone get the conductor!” I knew about the Bystander Effect, had studied it in school, and knowing about the effect, it turns out, inoculates you against it.
Before I moved, everyone’s faces had been contorted with terror — as though they were the ones having the seizure, or as though this woman thrashing around like a dying fish might be about to start biting their ankles. But from the moment I stepped forward, telling them what to do, the fear in their faces melted away. Two other people stood up to help. Four others whipped out their cell phones to call 9-1-1. One person ran for the conductor. They just needed someone to break the group cohesion and start the action.
A few years ago, when my first child was born, I became paralyzed with fear about climate disruption. It was so clear that our children would be punished for what we adults were doing to the world. I got depressed. I got anxious. Then, from sheer desperation, I started writing letters to editors. I remember well the first one that got published. It was in the Boston Globe, and it supported building Cape Wind, the large wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound. The head of Cape Wind called me up personally to thank me. The thrill I got. The sense of agency.
After that I was out of my seat. I believed there was a safe room I could try to get to if I moved super quick. Now I go to every demonstration. I write to every politician.
I insulate my house fanatically. I don’t own a car. Every year I do a little more: composting kitchen waste, shopping at farmers’ markets, recycling, buying only secondhand. Using carbon calculators, I’ve figured that I’ve lowered my family’s emissions 50 percent in seven years. That’s a big step. Because of my actions, my fear for my children’s future is not incapacitating. I’m striding down the aisle trying to help. Not only have I improved my emotional state, I’ve broken group cohesion and started to pull others from their seats. I’ve gotten friends and relatives to insulate more and drive less, to admit the problem and start thinking about the solution.
Scientists tell us we have ten years, if that, to make significant changes. Every indication, from ice caps to defrosting tundra, seems to show this is the tipping point. This is our moment. Perhaps you never thought you’d get a chance to play hero. Here it is. The kid on the train is screaming out for help. The weather is convulsing. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t sure what to do. Make your best guess. Call 9-1-1. For god’s sake, get the conductor.