Last month I chased down a criminal. I was working on my laptop on an upper floor of a secure building, and left the laptop unattended while I stepped away for two minutes. When I came back, the laptop was gone.
I called for the building staff and we went poking around a little. We found the culprit hiding inside an emergency staircase (no idea how he had sneaked into the building). A staff member confronted him, but he decided to run for it. This is when I made an unconscious gut decision: chase him.
We ran down approximately 12 flights of stairs (six stories). Twice, he opened a door and ran into hallways, crossing over to a different staircase before he continued his descent. He had a good head start on me, but I jumped whole flights of stairs and eventually caught up to him. When I did, he ditched my laptop. At that point I allowed him to flee. Security said he exited the building at ground level (someone witnessed this) and ran away.
Overcoming the Bystander Effect
Although it was a short encounter, it taught me a lot about an issue that’s close to my heart: heroism. I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything heroic in this encounter—nothing at all. I say this for several reasons:
- I didn’t help anyone. Most of us who study heroism define it as something like making a sacrifice for the sake of others. In this case, I was only helping myself.
- It’s not clear that I faced any real risk (which is good, and I prefer it that way). If there is no element of sacrifice or risk, it’s hard to call an act heroic.
- Although I was glad I got my laptop back, I didn’t really save the day. Many people would consider it more heroic if I had brought the thief to justice. Since he escaped, he may steal from others. (I don’t fully agree with this argument, but it’s a fair point.)
Nonetheless, the encounter taught me a lot about what it would take to do something truly heroic. There was a similar moment at the beginning of the encounter where I had a clear choice: remain passive and watch him escape, or do something to intervene. This is a textbook example of the “bystander effect”—the strong instinct we all have to simply keep our heads down in a bad situation, and wait for someone else to handle it. In this case I managed to overcome the bystander effect and took action. For most of us, this is not an easy choice.
The Wrong Conclusions
Before I get into what I learned, I want to point out a couple of issues I’m not going to address:
- “Going after him was stupid.” This is a common response to any situation where a normal citizen chases or confronts a criminal. Frankly, I look down on this point of view. I do agree that confronting a criminal is often a bad or dangerous idea. But I also think we use this as an excuse to do nothing. If someone is useful and competent in a bad situation we should not call their choice stupid, even if it was risky. In fact, I’m very glad that people willing to take a risk exist (we need more of them). In this particular case, we could debate for hours whether I was right to believe the criminal was unarmed, and whether I had reason to trust my ability to run down stairs safely at high speed. All I can really say is that in the end, no one was hurt and the stolen property was recovered.
- “You should have apprehended him.” Maybe. Perhaps it would have been better to tackle him and waited for police to come arrest him. But that would have definitely made the situation dangerous, and it wasn’t necessary. I think people get way too excited about punishing criminals. Sending someone to jail doesn’t fix them, or society, or the original crime they committed. In any case, it turns out the building staff know who my laptop thief was. His picture is now posted at every building entrance and elevator.
What Chasing a Criminal Taught Me about Heroism
So what exactly is it like chasing down a thief? It’s not at all how you’d think it is (certainly not what I thought it would be like). Here are a few things I learned:
- Building staff were not happy with me. I was quite pleased with the outcome of the chase. But the building staff have to worry about liability (what if I broke a leg on the stairs?). They would much rather if I had watched the man flee, even though losing the computer would have disrupted my life for weeks. Often, the people charged with keeping us secure are primarily concerned with following procedures—they prefer that no one take heroic action, which is by definition daring and unusual. This is how people who do the right thing get vilified or reprimanded. (In my case, staff stopped short of actually criticizing my actions.)
- Willpower is what won, not athletic superiority. The thief was younger, leaner and faster than me. I felt myself flagging within a few flights of stairs, and I’ve never been a strong runner. But he didn’t know that. I made myself keep going, and in the end, that’s why I caught him. The longer I kept on him the more scared he got. Eventually, he decided to play the safe card and ditch my laptop, hoping I’d stop. It worked out for both of us.
- I could not have done this if I wasn’t physically fit. Despite what I just said, there is a baseline of physical fitness that’s necessary to intervene in many situations. I’m no gym rat: I was a nerd growing up, I run with a limp, and I will always be last picked for sports. But I work out regularly and do my best to eat a healthy diet. Doing the right thing in a bad situation often means having a body you can count on.
- I like this guy. Theft is wrong. Seeing an empty table where my laptop was put a sour, heavy feeling in my stomach. But I don’t hate the young man who stole it. To the contrary, he has qualities I respect. This is a man who (the police tell me) routinely enters downtown apartment buildings. He knew the layout of the floors. He knew how to get in, where to hide and how best to escape. Frankly, what he did took bravery—misguided bravery, but still. When I learned his name I had half a mind to put posters in the staircases inviting him to contact me; I’d love to interview him. Someday I hope he finds a way to apply the same level of planning and derring-do to legal, gainful activities.
- Mental preparation matters. More than anything, I realized I would never have done this if I hadn’t mentally prepared myself to be the sort of person that takes action. I had about a half second to decide whether to chase the thief or not. In that half second, I didn’t consciously decide anything—I found myself flying down the stairs and realized, “Oh, I guess we’re doing this.” The reason I acted as I did is because I’ve spent a lot of time “training” myself not to by a bystander.
And this is really what I want to share. Your heroism may not look like anybody else’s. It might not involve chasing criminals, or rescuing people from fires, or defending someone’s life. But what about stopping when you see a car accident? What about giving someone CPR? How about blowing the whistle on illegal activity in your workplace?
Each of these scenarios requires a decision. Sometimes you’ll have time to think, like last time I intervened. Other times you’ll have to decide immediately. Either way, your choice will be shaped by how well you have prepared by picturing yourself as the kind of person who takes action. There are several ways you can do that:
- Don’t react to heroic or impressive deeds by saying, “I could never do that!” Ask yourself how you could do that—even if you would do it differently.
- Picture yourself as the hero or heroine the next time you watch a movie.
- Learn CPR.
- In new places, picture potential bad events and how you would react to them. (What would I do if there was a fire here? What would I do if someone fell on these tracks?)
- Regularly put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Learn a new language; take a challenging class; travel somewhere new; go out alone; talk to a stranger. Any small incident of controlled risk-taking helps you build your capacity for acting against the odds.
You could also join us at this year’s Hero Round Table and learn how to be more than a bystander—from real-life heroes who have done amazing things around the world.
Have you ever had to take action in a bad situation? What did you do? How did you feel afterwards? I’d love to hear your story. What made you do what you did?