Amanda Ripley

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The Hero Dilemma

22nd Jun 2010 posted in Disaster Behavior

I talked to Nightline for this segment on heroism yesterday, and it reminded me of just how slippery the concept is. The show features Richard Camp, a man who was at his local bank when a gunman came in and tried to rob the place. The video from the surveillance cameras is pretty remarkable. You can see how Camp is trying to make up his mind: should he remain passive or should he try to stop the man? Meanwhile, watch what most of the other customers did: as the perpetrator, wearing a motorcycle helmet, waved his gun around, the other customers went about their business. One man sips his coffee while another couple fills out a loan application.

Now, it’s possible that some of them literally did not see or hear anything to suggest a problem. But I would guess that some of them were in a position to notice something amiss—and their brains talked them out of it. That is the most common mistake that people make in life-or-death situations. They are very slow to accept that something dangerous is happening. There are good reasons for this: the brain works by fitting everything that happens into patterns for what has happened before. So you will find yourself trying to normalize what you are seeing—to shoehorn it into one of the patterns in your head for what normally happens. We are slow to recognize exceptions.

Richard Camp did not have that luxury, since the man threatened him directly. And Camp did not get stuck in disbelief. As you can see in the segment, he waited several minutes, and then jumped the guy—sustaining a gunshot wound to the leg. Another customer then helped subdue the robber. Camp was declared a hero and is recovering from his injury.

Since then, lawyers have gotten involved, and Camp has filed suit against the bank. (See this Los Angeles Times piece for more.) I wish I could say this is uncommon, but it is not. Survivors often complain that the authorities tasked with protecting them—or at least thanking them—let them down in some way after the incident. And companies, also reeling from the initial crisis, frequently do not know how to best respond to the complicated needs of survivors. It is heartbreaking how quickly goodwill can evaporate.

Anyway, no one can say if the robber would have left the bank without firing his weapon had Camp not intervened. No one will know if the robber would’ve gone on to rob more banks and put more people in danger. But it seems like Camp thought through his options and decided to take responsibility for the safety of himself and others. I commend him for his courage.