Archive for Monday, August 23, 2004

Random act hard to explain

August 23, 2004


After my teenage years, I stopped surprising myself in that my thoughts and actions became very predictable. In this regard, I think I am similar to my professional peer group of psychologists. We are fairly passive and conventional in our words and deeds.

In case you were not aware of it, we psychologists completed our five-day annual national convention of the American Psychological Assn. at the end of July and the beginning of August. This year it was in Honolulu. So, there we were by the thousands trying to look casual with the flowery shirts that most of us had purchased on the mainland. Alas, our shirts were rather blah in comparison to those worn by the natives. But, at least we were trying to break out of our normal wear and these shirts were a pretty big step for most of us.

Oh yes, the women psychologists also were wearing leis made from Hawaiian flowers. (I asked a local about this and was told that these basically are tourist apparel.) My guess is that 50 percent of the men were sporting beards, which most of us probably grew around 1985.

At restaurants and other public places, we were shocked every time a local said, "You are psychologists."

"How can you tell?" we asked, incredulous at such skill. Part of the giveaway was that there were so many of us running around wearing our convention "uniforms," plus we often forgot to take off our badges. So much for our uniqueness, as well as our personal insight!

All in all, it was "things as usual" for my convention stay in Honolulu. My only real surprise came as I headed home.

I was walking down a long, mostly deserted corridor at the Honolulu International Airport. A woman and man in their 80s were moseying along hand-in-hand ahead of me. A young man suddenly bolted by and headed straight toward the couple. Galloping ahead, he broke through the clasped hands of the older couple, knocking the woman to the floor. He then raced off, laughing.

I began to chase him. Unfortunately, carrying a backpack and some 30 additional years relative to the fleeing assailant, I did not catch him. After several twists and turns, he disappeared into a crowd of people. The only thing I heard him shout during the chase was, "What's with you, man?"

Panting and discouraged that I had lost him, I returned to the old couple. My first glimpse of them reminded me of two dogs I had seen years ago huddled by the side of a road--one was injured and the other was caring for its partner. The good news was that the elderly woman was not seriously hurt and she wanted no more fuss to be made about this incident. The last I saw the couple, they were toddling off into the distance, again hand in hand.

Three things troubled me about this incident. First, as I returned to the elderly woman and her partner, she looked at me and asked, "Why did he do that?"

It is a simple enough question. Furthermore, as a psychologist who specializes in human motivation, I suppose that I should have an answer to it. But, I don't really have a good reply, other than the fact that this guy probably thought that he could do this and get away with it. And, the ugly reality is that he did get away with it. But what a needless display of power!

Second, remember the assailant's question to me, "What's with you, man?" This suggests that he saw all the surrounding people as being totally disinterested in getting involved enough to help two elderly people. Alas, there is a good deal of truth to this view. Both the media and serious psychological research show that we prefer to stay uninvolved with the lives of other people. Even when others clearly need our help, most of the time we look the other way.

Third, as to my part in this saga, I am surprised that I set off to catch this guy. Clearly, chasing "bad guys" is not part of my normal, day-to-day routine. But I get no solace in my failed attempt to try to catch him. Instead, I feel helpless for not having been able to do more than I did. That feeling will stay with me for a long time.

Rick Snyder is Wright Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at Kansas University.

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