On Altruism

posted in: Random | 0

Yesterday A. had a bicycle accident. Fortunately it turned out not to be too serious, but she hit her head on the curb and started bleeding from a wound near the eye. I was cycling behind her, so I could help immediately.

The good news is that within the few minutes it took the ambulance to arrive, about ten people stopped to ask if they could do something to help, including a bus driver and a police officer. About half of them asked if somebody had already called an ambulance. The police officer was especially helpful: he stuck around until everything was over, radioed to enquire what was taking the ambulance so long when he felt it did take too long, helped me move the bicycles down the road where I could lock them to a rack and spoke to the ambulance staff, so I could ride along to the hospital at the other end of town, even though the driver had previously said I couldn’t.

Last time I witnessed an accident was when a young woman collapsed on a train in Meran, and the experience was similar: a healthy dose of curiosity, but no mobile phones uploading anything anywhere, plenty of people willing to help (offering their water bottles and dextrose for instance) but nobody stood in the way of the doctor who was quickly paged through passengers shout on and on through the train.

I don’t have much personal data (and I hope it stays that way), so I might just have been lucky, but the assumptions I took home from yesterday’s experience are these:

a) Altruism is Real

Even if the horror news about people ignoring other people in need the tabloids are spreading are true, there are contrasting examples and I experienced them both in a capital city and in a more rural environment.

b) Walking is better than driving

All the good experiences with police I had were with the ones on foot, usually on their own. All the bad ones were with a bunch in a vehicle. Maybe it’s just not a good idea to have police move around town in groups of three sitting in a car:


Day 185 - West Midlands Police - PC Blakeman c.1962

»PC Blakeman c. 1962« by West Midlands Police on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

1. Circulation. Sitting is unhealthy, the whole body has evolved to function better when moving. The blood circulates, the respiratory system works much better, and one is more alert and less sleepy.

2. Separation. Cars create a distinct space separating the inside »we« from the outside »them«. When you walk, you are in the environment, not merely passing through it.

3. Frustration. Cars in a congested city like Vienna create a frustrating experience because one can never go as fast as the rules allow, the machine is capable of and one wants. This piles on to the »them«-perception as »they« are always in the way, barely moving, even though the blues and twos are going. If you’re walking you can almost always walk as fast as you want to – which will seldom be as fast as you can because that’s simply tiring.

4. Escalation. In an armed group of three it takes a good deal of heat before one has a substantial reason for cooperation. If you’re on your own it’s a different story. Of course a police officer should always feel unthreatened and safe, but so should I. If it’s one-on-one I believe the mindset is just different and much healthier on everybody’s side (also, police always has a hundred and ten brothers and sisters behind her radio, I don’t). I also don’t like the guns here and really miss the relaxed climate the British unarmed police creates, but that is a different story.

c) Cooperation deserves more attention

We know that cooperation/altruism is deeply rooted in the human nature, but it is not getting the attention it deserves. All the systems are based on competition: the education system, the political system and most certainly sports and economy. In competition in the end one feels good and everybody else not. During the recent Olympics people complained that German news immediately switched to a disappointed tone when it was not gold (but silver or bronze). When people cooperate, in the end everybody can feel good about the achievement and the fact they cooperated. Elinor Ostrom has dedicated a lot of research on the topic and she was the first (and so far the only) woman to receive a Nobel price in economics. Alternet has a good piece on her work on cooperation in economics. Sadly, Ostrom died in June this year, but hopefully many others will continue her work.

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