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From Cowardice to Courageous: How to Be a Hero When Others Need Us Most

While revisionists challenge the details on the magnitude of the reports of apathy, tragically, 10 years later, another young woman, Sandra Zahler, was beaten to death in the same apartment complex, overlooking the Genovese murder scene and, again, no one intervened.

Latane and Darley's research suggested that two processes set in as we look to others for guidance on how to act. First, there is a "pluralist ignorance." That is, we are not sure if this is a situation where we should act, so we look to see what others do. The second is a "diffusion of responsibility," which inhibits people from intervening to help. The more others are present, the more we presume others will help.

This may seem to explain the midday bystander apathy in midtown Manhattan recently, but how do we explain the heroism in Newtown a week later? In fact, what if the setting is not young kids with whom the heroes have a personal relationship?

For example, consider how differently a crowd acted in another midday mishap, this time in Logan, Utah, on Sept. 12, 2011. Motorcyclist Brandon Wright was rescued by a crowd of total strangers after he was stuck by a BMW on a highway. The bike hit the car hood, and Wright slid underneath the car, where he was about to be consumed by the fiery collision.

The immediate witnesses crawled under the car to check on Wright's condition but failed in an initial attempt to lift the vehicle until others quickly joined. Ultimately, 12 strangers assembled to lift the car and free Wright while nearby construction workers rushed over with fire extinguishers to put out the flames.

Five years ago, during a routine trip with his two little girls, Wesley Autrey, a 51-year-old Harlem construction worker, was a hero -- and where? On a New York subway platform. That day, 20-year-old Cameron Hollopeter suffered a seizure while on the platform, and he fell onto the train tracks seconds before a train approached. Autrey jumped on the tracks, entrusting his two girls to the custody of two strangers. With no time to escape, he pulled Hollopeter into a small space a few feet deep as the train passed overhead. They emerged to a cheering crowd and, later, a celebration from the mayor and the president.

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