Skip to main content

What made London Samaritan so brave

By Jason Marsh, Special to CNN
May 26, 2013 -- Updated 1732 GMT (0132 HKT)
 A police officer looks at flowers on Friday laid where Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was killed.
A police officer looks at flowers on Friday laid where Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers was killed.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ingrid Loyau-Kennett talked to murder suspects right after London hacking to calm them
  • Jason Marsh: People who step up like her often think they have skills to help, like she did
  • Marsh: Such people, sometimes, are a bit nonconformist
  • He says we all have the potential to shake the "bystander effect" and find our inner hero

Editor's note: Jason Marsh is the founding editor-in-chief of the online magazine Greater Good, published by The Greater Good Science Center, which focuses on the "science of a meaningful life" and is based at the University of California at Berkeley.

(CNN) -- It's hard to imagine a scene more gruesome and disturbing than the one Londoners encountered on an inner-city street Wednesday.

A person hacked to death, lying in a pool of his own blood. His assailants standing nearby, covered in blood and brandishing gore-soaked knives and meat cleavers as they spew violent rhetoric. A car smashed into a lamppost a few yards away.

Most bystanders kept their distance, understandably.

Yet one woman directly confronted the apparent murderers -- in fact, she jumped off her bus and rushed to the scene when she saw what looked like a car accident, then stuck around and tried to engage both attackers in conversation even after she realized what was going on. The woman, a 48-year-old mother of two named Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, later said she was trying to talk them down and keep them from hurting anyone else, especially children. Why did she put herself on the line when so many others stayed away?

Jason Marsh
Jason Marsh

We don't really know enough about Loyau-Kennett to be able to say for sure; perhaps we never will. History is filled with heroes, from Oskar Schindler to Paul Rusesabagina of Hotel Rwanda fame, whose life histories couldn't have predicted the extraordinary things that they later did.

Cub scout leader, ex-teacher confronted London terrorist

But what we do know, thanks to social psychology, is that what separates people like Loyau-Kennett from the rest of us is often extremely subtle. In fact, research suggests that many of us, perhaps to our own surprise, have the potential to find our own inner hero. What often makes the difference between a bystander and an "upstander" are the particulars of a crisis situation and how those details interact with a person's background.

For instance, decades of research on the "bystander effect" has shown that even good, moral people fail to take action when confronted with an emergency. One famous study found that the only factor that determined whether bystanders stopped to help someone in need was whether they were in a hurry.

Other research shows people are less likely to help when they're part of a crowd: They assume either that someone else will take responsibility or that there must not really be a crisis at all if no one else has acted yet. Taking action would mean going against the norm, breaking from the herd; they don't want to rock the boat. The bigger the crowd, the more likely all crowd members will do nothing.

Family of Woolwich victim speaks
The courage of teachers

Yet there are exceptions. Research suggests, for example, that when people can be made to feel a personal connection to a victim, they might intervene in a situation that they would otherwise ignore. One British study even found that people were more willing to help an injured stranger if that stranger were wearing the jersey of their favorite soccer team.

There are other exceptions as well. Research by Princeton psychologist John Darley, who pioneered the study of the bystander effect, has found no clear personality profile distinguishes the upstanders from the bystanders. More important, according to Darley and others, is whether people can recognize a crisis and feel they have the skills to help.

That finding resonated in London when Loyau-Kennett, trying to explain her actions, cited her role as a Cub Scout leader, mentioning that she had to learn first aid for the position. It was her knowledge of first aid that initially prompted her to get off her bus, thinking that she could help the victim she saw lying on the ground.

Similarly, after Wesley Autrey-- aka the Subway Hero -- leaped onto New York City subway tracks to save someone who'd fallen in front of a train back in 2007, many observers later pointed to Autrey's Navy service to explain why this otherwise unexceptional man sprang to action while everyone else simply watched.

In their own extensive analysis of what makes a hero, psychologists Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo suggest that people who don't succumb to the bystander effect are sometimes people who generally don't adhere to social norms and conventions. That means they're prone to intervene and take positive action when no one else will. But it may also mean they're prone to break other rules.

Franco and Zimbardo cite the story of Jabar Gibson, who was hailed as a hero after he drove 70 people to safety from the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, commandeering an abandoned school bus. Gibson thought to do something bold that others wouldn't do; he also had an extensive criminal record, which has grown in the years since.

Does this mean we can expect Ingrid Loyau-Kennett to break the law in the not-too-distant future? Hardly. But it does challenge the notion that there's a distinct category of exceptional people who are heroes, elevated above the rest of us.

Franco and Zimbardo have argued that deifying heroes like this -- what they call "the myth of the 'heroic elect'" -- has the perverse effect of making us blind to our own heroic potential. If instead we believe we're capable of heroism ourselves, we'll be better prepared to realize that potential and snap into action if and when our time comes.

So science still hasn't gotten to the bottom of stories like Ingrid Loyau-Kennett's. But perhaps its greatest insight so far is that her story could be ours.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Marsh.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT