Could You Kill an Innocent Person? (Statistics say yes)

This is a follow-up to the previous post on proactivity.

Ki Suk Han was your typical New Yorker. An immigrant from Korea, he worked hard, and grafted for his slice of the American dream. During a period of unemployment, he told his wife that he’d get through it all the stronger. A good-hearted man, he cleaned his church despite having no money coming in, and encouraged his daughter to get a good education.

On the afternoon of December 10, 2012, Mr Han left his apartment to renew his passport. At the subway platform, a man was verbally harassing bystanders waiting for the train. Perhaps with the help of a few drinks in his system, or perhaps not, Mr. Han confronted the deranged man. The man reacted badly, and pushed Han onto the subway tracks. Some witnesses say it was 22 seconds between the fall and the oncoming train. Others say as much as 60. What we do know is that dozens of people stood by and let the 58-year old man meet his grisly end. A professional photographer even had the time to snap a photo of Han moments before his death.

The photographer, Umam Abassi, says he had no time to help. He defended his actions in an interview days afterwards, explaining that he was trying to warn the train driver with his camera flash, not take a photo. He wasn’t thinking about the money, he said. (Though that didn’t stop him from making a pretty penny selling the shot to major newspapers). Asked about whether he would have done anything differently, he says it was impossible for him to save Mr. Han. The real question, he says, is why didn’t the people closest to Han do anything?

I have my doubts about “impossible”. I say if you have time to snap a photo, you could have done more. But the photographer has a point. What were the people closest to Han doing? Someone filmed the verbal altercation on their phone only a few metres away. What are these people’s excuses?

Would you have done the same?

The Thirty-Eight Witnesses Who Saw Murder and Didn’t Call The Police

Catherine “Kitty” Genovese

It was 2:30 am when Catherine “Kitty” Genovese left Ev’s Eleventh Hour Bar, a popular New York watering hole where she worked as bar manager. She got into her red Fiat, and started the drive home.

Winston Moseley had gone out that night “in search of a woman to kill”. Sitting in his parked card, he spotted Genovese waiting for a red light, and decided to follow her. When she got out of her car, a hundred feet or so from her apartment, Moseley chased her and stabbed her twice with a hunting knife. Genovese screamed out for help. Only one person responded, shouting from his window, “Leave that girl alone!” Moseley was frightened off, and retreated to a side street.

The killer returned 10 minutes later. Finding the doorway where he stabbed Genovese empty, he searched around. He found her barely conscious in a hallway at the back of her apartment building, where a locked door prevented her from entering. Mosely stabbed her again repeatedly, before raping her. She would later die on the way to the hospital.

The gruesome murder of Catherine Genovese on March 13 1964 initally attracted little attention. This was New York, after all. Homicides were a dime a dozen. The Genovese case warranted little more than a passing mention in the newspaper. It might’ve stayed that way, had it not been for a serendipitous misunderstanding at a lunch between metripolitan editor of the New York Times A.M. Rosenthal and the NY police commissioner. When Rosenthal asked about a murder in Queen’s, the commissioner wrongly assumed he was referring to Catherine Genovese, and revealed a staggering development uncovered by the police investigation.

The murder hadn’t been quick and silent. It was loud, drawn out, and there had been witnesses. And here’s why the Genovese case leaves even the most hardened homicide detectives queasy. In a good, clean, middle-class neighbourhood, 38 law-abiding citizens has witnessed the murder. Witnessed it, yet done nothing. Only one called the police, and that was after the attack when it was too late.
Rosenthal, sensing a story, sent out reporters to investigate the bystander angle, and a few days later the following appeared in the NY Times:

“For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out, and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.

That was two weeks ago today. But Assistant Chief Inspector Frederick M. Lussen, in charge of the borough’s detectives and a veteran of twenty-five years of homicide investigations, is still shocked. He can give a matter-of-fact recitation of many murders. But the Kew Gardens slaying baffles him—not because it is a murder, but because “good people” failed to call the police.”

How on Earth was it possible? How could so many people see it, yet do nothing? Why did no-one go down and check if she was okay?
The witness testimonies varied. Some said they were scared, others infamously “didn’t want to get involved.”

Modern discussions of the case have tried to defend the witnesses, saying they couldn’t have heard the victim, and that 38 is a massive over-exaggeration. But according to a historian who spent seven years researching the case, modern journalists have merely created a “PG-13” version. The truth is more shocking: 38 witnesses could be an understatement. Police reports confirm that 62 people heard the screams, and of those, only 30 admitted to seeing anything.

A witness statement hints at the morbid atmosphere that night:

I woke up [after] about the third scream. I forgot the [window] screen was there and I almost put my head through it trying to get a better look. I could see people with their heads out and hear windows going up and down all along the street.”

Responding to arguments that the witnesses couldn’t have heard anything, one detective on the case replied, “Come on, the women had been screaming, staggering down the street. How much do you need to see?

Pretty dark stuff. A whole neighbourhood in no doubt that something horrific is happenening, and yet not a single person steppd in to save 28-year old Catherine’s life.

After the NY Times piece, the murder took the world by storm. It was described as conclusive proof that life in cities was detrimental to humanity, and that we had gradually become the Cold Society, where man thinks not of his fellow man.

Psychologists offer a different explanation, one which also helps explain why the dozens of bystanders did nothing to save Ki Suk Han in the NY subway. In both cases, media outlets were appalled because the victims weren’t helped, despite huge numbers of bystanders. Two psychologists, Darley and Latané, argue the exact opposite: the victims weren’t helped precisely because there were so many bystanders.

The psychology explanation describes two causes. First, with a greater number of individuals responsible for acting, personal responsibility decreases. Everyone thinks someone else will do it, but in the end no-one does. It’s easy to imagine the 38-plus witnesses of the Genovese murder thinking, “someone must have called the police already.” Excusable? Hardly. But understandeable? Definitely.

The second factor at work involves the principle of social proof, and what has been coined the pluralistic ignorance effect. Social proof describes how our behaviour is influenced by that of others. Peer-pressure is an example. If you see the cool kids smoking in school, social proof makes you want to smoke too. Likewise, if the cool kids play on the basketball team, social proof makes you want to do the same. The greater the standing of the individuals whose behaviour we see, the greater the social proof. If you see an unpopular kid reading all the time, there’s very little social proof. If, on the other hand, you see your sports hero reading all the time, the social proof is enormous.

Tied in to social proof is the pluralistic ignorance effect. When we’re unsure of how to act, for example when hearing the screams of Catherine Genovese, and asking “should I call the police?”, we look to our peers. But our peers are asking themselves the same thing, and looking at us. Because nobody wants to look ruffled amongst their peers, everyone tries to look calm and unbothered. And when we see a number of our peers unruffled, we take it as a sign that there is nothing wrong. The irony is that a lone individual would have no-one to look to, and would clearly identify the situation as an emergency and act.

In the Ki Suk Han case, you can imagine bystanders thinking (perhaps subconsciously) “no-one else is panicking about a man being on the train tracks despite a train coming. This mustn’t be an emergency then.” People then find out at the last minutew that everyone was wrong, and it was in fact an emergency, but by then it was too late.

The pluralistic ignorance effect has been shown in numerous studies. Experiments by Darley and Latané compared the reactions of individuals and groups to emergencies, and in which condition was aid given. In the first experiment, a New York college student who appeared to be having an epileptic seizure received help 85 percent of the time when there was a single bystander present but only 31 percent of the time with five bystanders present.

In another experiment, 75% of lone individuals who observed smoke seeping from a door reported the fire, whereas three-person groups only reported the fire 38% of the time. When two members of the three-person group were coached to ignore the smoke, the fire was reported only 10% of the time. In a similar experiment, single bystanders provided emergency aid 90% percent of the time, but only 16% provided aid in the presence of two other bystanders who remained passive. Similar results have been shown with the actions of lone bystanders vs. groups when a woman shouts “Help, I’m being raped!”.

Due to the psychological factors above, safety in numbers is largely a myth. Often times, the more witnesses there are, the less likely we are to recieve help. Counter-intuitive to us it may be, but not apparently to Catherine Genovese’s killer. When asked by a homicide detective how he dared attack a woman in front of so many witnesses, he replied calmly, “I knew they wouldn’t do anything, people never do.”

Could You Kill Another Human Being? (Psychology says yes)

Adolf Eichmann was an unspectacular child. After an unremarkable school career, he worked a stint at his dad’s mining company in Austria, before working as a travelling oil salesman. Eventually returning to Germany in 1933, he joined the Nazi Party and became the monster the world knows him as: the man responsible for the logistics of the Holocaust.

Appointed head of Jewish affairs, he organized the forced transportation of Jews into ghettos. When Nazi policy changed from forced emigration to extermination, Eichmann became responsible for deportating Jews to extermination camps. Most of his victims were sent to Aushwitz, where 75% to 90% were murdered upon arrival. By the time he was stopped in 1944, he’d murdered 437,000 of Hungary’s 725,000 Jews.

When the war ended and the man-hunt began for the monsters responsible, Eichmann fled to Austria and then to Argentina using false papers. Eventually, Mossad (Israeli intelligence) caught up with him, and brought him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the Jewish people. His defense? That he was simply following orders. He was found guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, and executed on the 1 June 1962.

Eichmann’s trial, and those of other Nazis, sparked outrage. How could anyone “just be following orders?”

In Eichmann’s case, he was lying through his teeth. Towards the end of the war, he was quoted saying, “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have five million human beings on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.

The man was clearly a monster. But what about the rest? What about the pawns in the Nazi regime? I have my doubts that the entire German nation wanted to take part in the atrocities like Eichmann did. But if so, could they really have just been following orders?

To find out, psychologist Stanley Milgram at Yale university devised the following experiment:

You and a fellow participant are welcomed into a room. A man in a white lab coat gives you a choice of two slips of paper. You take one. It reads “teacher”. The other participant is assigned “learner”. The learner is then taken into another room, which you cannot see.

You’re now left in a room with the experimenter, who tells you that the aim of the experiment is to investigate the effect of pain on memory and academic performance. The learner, you’re told, is now strapped into a chair, and connected to an electric-shock device. The experimenter will read out questions, and for every question the learner gets wrong, you – the teacher – must administer a shock via the control panel in front of you.

With each subsequent wrong answer, you must increase the voltage by 15V. The control panel is labelled “Slight Shock”, “Moderate Shock”, “Strong Shock”, “Very Strong Shock”, “Intense Shock”, “Danger: Severe Shock” and “XXX” at 450V.
You cannot see the learner, but you can hear their responses to the shocks over an intercom.

Here’s the question: How far would you go?

As the shocks become serious, the learner starts to demand that the experiment be stopped. He complains of heart trouble, and exclaims that the experimenter has no right to hold him there. He demands that he be let go.
At this point, you’re feeling uncomfortable, and start to question what you’re doing. You question the man in the white lab coat, and demand that the experiment be stopped.

The experimenter replies with four prods:
Prod 1: Please continue.
Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.
Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.
Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

Faced with a man in a white coat, how far would you go? Would you administer the fatal 450V shock? Or would you refuse to go on?
Before the experiment began, researchers thought that a mere 3% of people would have it in them to go all the way. If you’re like me, you think the same. There’s no way we’d potentially kill another human being, right?

But you, me and the researchers were wrong.

40 well-to-do citizens walked into the lab that day. Some were successful businessmen, some dentists, some supermarket clerks. 65% of them walked out at the end of the day having administered the lethal 450V shock.

That’s right. 65% of normal people went to bed that day knowing they could have killed another human being. 65%!! So the next time you’re with your friends, look to the person on your left and on your right. Out of the three of you, two would knowingly kill another person under the orders of a man in a white lab coat.

Of course, the experiment was a set-up. The “learner” who recieved the shocks was actually an actor in cahoots with the researchers. Unbeknownst to you, the paper you recieved would always read “teacher”.
Scary, isn’t it? Two thirds of us will knowingly kill another person that we cannot see, purely under the direction of a random guy in a lab coat.

What’s perhaps more terrifying are variations of the experiment.

When participants were told that they wouldn’t be held responsible for what happened, obedience shot up. In other variations:

  • When the participant was given someone to administer the shocks for them, 92.5% went all the way.
  • When the experiment was held in a run-down building instead of the prestigious Yale building, only 48% went all the way.
  • When the teacher and learner were in the same room, 40% administered the fatal shock.
  • When the teacher had to force the learner’s hand on to a shock plate, 30% delivered the fatal shock.
  • When the teacher was given orders by the experimenter via telephone, 21% delivered the 450V shock.
  • When the experimenter was replaced by an ordinary person wearing no uniform, only 20% administered the fatal shock.
  • When other people were put in the room to disobey the authority, only 10% went all the way.

Did these people find it easy to administer the lethal 450V shock? No. They sweated, they started shaking, they bit their lips and they dug their fingernails into their hands. Most of those went all the way were extremely uncomfortable doing so. Let’s also bear in mind that if, after the fourth prod “you have no other choice but to continue”, the teacher still refused to go on, the experiment would be stopped. These people were very uncomfortable, but 65% didn’t speak up more than 4 times to question whether potentially killing someone was the wrong thing to do.

Where does this leave us?

Let me sum this up, one last time.

65% of people willingly killed another person. Why? Because a guy in a white lab coat told them to do it.

Let’s compare and contrast to the Nazis, and other people in barbaric regimes.

The difference with the Nazis:

  • If they disobeyed orders, they and their family would be shot, or worse.
  • Paranoia was rife. Germans were encouraged to report any anti-regime sentiments of their neighbours.
  • They were told that exterminating the Jews was necessary to protect themselves.
  • They were told to that killing the Jews was for their country.
  • They had been exposed to years of Anti-Jewish propaganda.
  • The authority figures had huge power at their fingertips, and could descenters them on site.
  • Nazis could make huge financial gains by following orders.

The Milgram experiment is not even a speck of a small potato in comparison. There was no punishment for non-compliance, your family wouldn’t be punished, you were administering electric shocks not gassing/machine gunning scores of people, there was no propaganda, there was no reward for your family for going ahead, and the authority figure was only a man in a white coat.

And still, 65% of the participants who woke up that day believing they were good people went to bed knowing they could’ve killed someone.

What do we takeaway from this?

I, for one, feel extremely uncomfortable. I’ve always grown up being taught right vs. wrong, and to have a moral compass etc. That the Nazis were bad, and that people who let others get run over by trains and be stabbed and rape must be bad.

But the truth is that statistically I’d probably be one of them. I’d love – absolutely LOVE – to say that I’d have gave Ki Suk Han a hand, and have called the police to save Catherine Genovese’s life. I’d love to say that I wouldn’t have taken any part in the Nazi regime, and I would’ve stood up for what’s right. I’d love to say that I’d never have been a Nazi.

I’d love to say that all Nazis were bad. That they were the the incarnation of evil on this Earth. And maybe there’s some truth in that. But before calling the people who just followed orders, and who turned a blind eye “evil”, let’s take a good look at ourselves first. If all Nazis were evil, what does that say about 65% of human society who can kill others in far less intense circumastances?

Am I defending the Nazis? Hell no. Am I excusing what they did? Absolutely not. Am I saying that they were good people? No. What I am saying is that if 65% of people can kill another in a setting with zero pressure, with nothing on the line, then what does that say about all of us? How can we judge the pawns of the Nazi regime, if most of us would’ve done the exact same?

Am I saying that all Nazis were bad people? Given the evidence, how can I? Sure, there were some absolute monsters like Eichmann. But what of the people that just wanted to get by? Were they bad people? Weak-willed people? Or just people? 65% of them before the war believed they never could’ve done such things.

Do I blame them for the atrocities that occured? Absolutely yes. Do I stand by the statement, “If you sit by and watch the bomb go off, you might as well have planted the bomb yourself”? Yes, I do. But can I distance myself from the Nazis, the bystanders who didn’t help Ki Suk Han, and the witnesses of Catherine Genovese’s murder? No. How can I? From monsters like Eichmann, sure. But from the others? No.

I’d love to be all high and mighty and say I’d never do these things. In my heart, deep down, I’d say I would’ve stood up for what was right. But 65% of people who went to Milgram’s lab woke up that day believing they’d never kill another human being were in for a dark surprise. So what makes me so sure? What makes me any different?

I don’t have a son or a daughter that would be tortured or used in disgusting scientific experiments if I disobeyed. I don’t have a wife that I love deeply, that might be raped and hanged if I questioned a totalitarian regime. Heck, I don’t even have a girlfriend. How can I possibly understand the emotions running through the heads of normal people put in impossible situations? How can I say I’d be the hero in their shoes? I can’t. We can’t know what we’d do until the moment comes.

And this leads us full-circle back to a proactive life. We can’t know exactly what we’ll do when put in these situations, whether it’s calling out corruption, standing up to government atrocities, saving someone from an oncoming train or calling the police to prevent a murder.

But we can bet that at least once in our lives, we’re going to be put in one of these situations. And with that knowledge, we can train and prepare ahead of time. The Navy Seals have a saying that we don’t rise to the occasion, but sink to the level of training. We can’t expect to do heroic things only when the time comes. What we can expect is to do the big things exactly like we do the smalls thing.

We can train to question and disobey authority. We can train to innoculate ourselves against an undecisive crowd. We can reduce the paralysing effects of pluralistic ignorance and social proof. We can stand up to our friends (5 points to Neville Longbottom), before we stand up to an injust government. We can choose our values.

Often, just knowing helps. We can’t fight enemies we can’t see. Reading to bring unknown unknowns to light is essential.

Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, a book I used as research for this article, was involved in a serious car accident with another driver. He staggered, all bloody, out of his car while the other driver was slumped over his wheel, unconscious. The accident happened at an intersection in full view of several other drivers. But instead of helping, as soon as the light changed they gawked but didn’t stop.

Cialdini recognised his own research playing out in front of him, and remembered that unless individuals have personal responsibility, they are unlikely to help. He singled out several drivers, telling one to call an ambulance, and others to help. Once other people saw these people helping, everyone who passed by stopped to help. By singling out several drivers to take full responsibility for helping, he got the ball rolling in the direction of aid, and let social proof do the rest.

Useful knowledge is power. Knowing the effects of authority bias means we can recognise it when it happens to us. Likewise, knowing the power of social proof, the division of personal resonsibility and the pluralistic ignorance effect allows us to compensate when we recognise them.

An authority tells us to do something? Be more suspicious than usual. Question the motives. In a large group of people, or with friends? Know that the others are unlikely to act, and assign yourself that role. Something suspicious has happened, and no-one is doing anything about it? Call it out for what it is, and get the ball moving.

5 years after the Ki Suk Han’s tragic death, another person fell onto the NY subway tracks. This time, Jonathan Kulig, a 29-year old engineering supervisor leapt onto the tracks and heaved the young man to safety, moments before the train roared into the station.

In the Milgram experiment, yes, 65% did deliver the lethal shock. But what of the 35% who didn’t?

What about the everyday heroes among us? What about those who have fought injustices, stood up against corrupt goverments, fought monstrous tyrants and left the Earth better than when they found it? What makes these people, the 35%, the Jonathan Kuligs different?

I wrote this article as a follow up to the previous post on proactivity. After writing said post, it dawned on me that proactivity is so much more than just getting our to-do lists done in half the time. Proactivity at its core is deciding how to live, so at the end, wwe don’t look back and think “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself.”

I wrote about humanity’s darker stories to show what can happen if we live on autopilot. Sure, the brain does some great things without thinking. But it also lets innocent people be mauled by trains, and young women at the mercy of psychopaths.

So what makes the 35%, and the Jonathan Kuligs of the world different? I say a proactive life. I say the difference is that they’ve already chosen how to live. They don’t leave it to chance.

Almost all of the participants who refused to continue with the Milgram experiment felt acountable to a greater moral imperative. Some were religious, but all felt accountable to a higher authority than the scientist in the room.

What is that higher authority? I say ourselves. Our own values must determine how we live, not those of other people. Granite, unrelenting integrity.

How do we cultivate granite, unrelenting integrity?

By choosing to do so.

We can’t decide what happens in life. But we can always decide what we stand for.


Through the researching, writing and reflecting of this post, I’m left thinking a lot less of myself. It’s uncomfortable, but I’m glad for having done it. The knowledge of my own weaknesses has given me a renewed sense of mission and direction, and only highlights the importance of building habits to counter them.

As Albert Einstein said, “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”

As Always,

Dream Big Start Small!

Mucho amor,