New Yorkers are crazy, at least according to social psychologists


Last Sunday, at Delancey and Norfolk in the Lower East Side, an SUV ran over a pedestrian, trapping her underneath the vehicle. A dozen men ran over, gathered around one side, lifted the two ton vehicle, and dragged the victim out. Psychologists would predict that in most instances bystanders would remain just that. Yet the opposite happened here. Why were New Yorkers’ behaviors so counter to predictions?

The Psychology of emergencies

Most emergencies that affect only a single person in a large crowd are subject to bystander effect and aversiveness. Bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological claim that individuals are less likely to help a victim when other people are present. In fact, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that anyone will help. Think of the accident where you wondered if anyone had called 911. Aversiveness is how unpleasant a stimulus is. Psychologists predict that the worse the accident, the more distracting it will be. Think of all the rubbernecking that occurs near traffic accidents. Yet neither bystander effect nor aversiveness occurred in the scenario above. And this may be because of some particular countervailing psychological forces at play.

Why New Yorkers help

A cynic might say that all the good Samaritans in the video where fit young men who were excited that their diligent workout regimen had finally paid off – they had a moment to shine! But I think there was something deeper going on.

I think there is a group cohesiveness that comes with being a New Yorker. We have a silent agreement collectively that we want our city to be full people with hustle and who love the place we live in. If something breaks our flow, we step in to correct it. I’ve been a part of these moments. I watched someone’s moving boxes spill across a crosswalk in a busy downtown intersection. Feeling alarmed for the girl and mildly horrified that these belongings would block rush hour traffic, I rushed to move some to the sidewalk, and everyone around me did the same. The road was cleared before the light turned green, and we all went on our way. Daniel Odescalchi shared similar stories in “The accessibility of NYC hearts: The view from my wheelchair“.

It also isn’t surprising to me that everyone immediately disbursed from the SUV scene, without waiting around for an emergency responder. I suspect that New Yorkers experience less intense emotional arousal in emergencies. We see so much craziness on the streets and subways, that we are more accustomed to disengaging and moving on to what, for most people, is out of the ordinary.

Keep it a secret between you and me, New Yorkers are actually nice. And resilient. We as New Yorkers have a shared sense of what is right that we can all fluidly work towards for our people and our city.

From academia to social media, institutional social responsibility is trending

This year YouTube announced that it is changing its algorithm to stop recommending conspiracy videos. This is a big deal both socially and financially. YouTube has essentially acknowledged that its practices have created a social problem, which they are willing to fix at their own expense.

YouTube’s revenue model benefits from those most easily addicted or drawn in – every minute watched is another opportunity for an ad to be inserted. Developer Guillaume Chaslot shared that conspiracy theorists are particularly susceptible to addiction and, consequently, train the YouTube algorithm to promote their favorite content more broadly, as if the video is seeking out other addicts.

YouTube’s corrective actions are emblematic of a paradigm shift underway. Institutions are not simply trying to maximize their own revenue and societal dominance anymore. Increasingly business leadership sees themselves as accountable for their influence on the world. Most large American businesses have focused on not being complicit with negative social actions. For example, Visa and Discover stopped processing payments to hate groups in 2017. YouTube’s actions move from non-participation to active moves against pernicious societal influence.

Even academia has re-considered its responsibilities to society. Academics are incentivized to maximize the number of papers published; it is the currency of professional success. Yet over the last decade a crisis of confidence has unfolded, where fields from cancer science to psychology have failed to reproduce the majority of their findings from published studies. Consequently, some journals have decided to stand for quality over novelty. For example, the American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) requires submissions to integrate reproducibility into their submissions.

From academia to corporate America, leaders are beginning to lead towards a better society rather than follow raw fame and fortune. Let’s hope that the trend continues to catch on.

When actions have consequences: are Millennials changing corporate and government behavior?

The Millennial generation, often decried for not wanting to take individual responsibility, is sending its reply loud and clear: “You first”.

The year is 2018. Recent hits like “We Ain’t ever Getting Older” have topped the charts by hitting a resonant chord with youths who want to push off adulthood. Any yet, the Millennial generation being referenced has fully graduated into the workforce. And in this very same moment, corporations and their key individuals are being called to account, often by Millennials — and the call is being heard. A wave of corporations and governments have been taking responsibility in a manor not previously seen in the Millennial lifetime.

From the Reagan era through the Financial Crisis, the silent message has been that corporations can do as they please, and expect to suffer a slap on the wrist at worst for infractions against society. Today, in the throws of the #MeToo movement, individuals are not only being called out, but called to account, with nearly 100 perpetrators now dethroned. Whereas no traders went to jail for fraud after the 2008 Financial Crisis, Elon Musk was immediately taken to task by the SEC for manipulating the stock market, losing his board position at Tesla for 3 years alongside a $20 million fine. This trend begs the question, are the masses successfully calling corporations and regulators to finally take responsibility for the excesses of the free market? And if so, what, in the last couple of years, has suddenly given corporations and the government the moral backbone it has seemingly lacked for decades? Perhaps the very generation that is said to avoid responsibility is demanding responsibility from the entities that govern it.

Have millennials brought about a new era of capitalism and government oversight? Certainly there is evidence on the corporate front. Where politicians have shied away from hot button issues, corporations have increasingly taken a stand for what they believe will benefit society. For example, following yet another school shooting, Delta’s CEO publicly stated “Our values are not for sale”, cutting ties with the NRA. There were political consequences: the Georgia legislature promptly punished the company by repealing a $40 million tax break. Yet Delta’s public perception improved. The brand was enhanced globally for its stance, and its stock price was left unaffected.

 Google Finance
Google Finance

Is Millennial purchasing power to thank for this growing trend? More and more, Millennials express their views by voting with their wallets. Responsive corporations are largely seeing a net to fully positive financial bump from taking social action. Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad, supporting the ostracized football star in his protest against police violence, resulted in a 31% jump in online sales, a much stronger performance than typical Labor Day sales. While the government does not seem interested in better regulating itself on this issue, perhaps it will better regulate equally unjust corporate behaviors.

Is government primed to take the same social cues as corporations are, and increase restrictions of antisocial corporate behaviors? As with corporate acts of social responsibility, customers have shown their support of impactful government regulation with their wallets. Google’s share of the European ad market jumped on May 25th, thanks to their swift and clear compliance with GDPR data protection policy vis-a-vis their competitors. In the case of Elon Musk and the SEC noted above, perhaps the SEC is seeing the social proof that if corporations can win public support by taking responsibility, perhaps they can to.

Are corporations finally starting to play a longer-term game than this quarter’s profits, thanks to consumer pressure? Industries such as entertrainment are rapidly asserting newfound standards even in the face of guaranteed financial loss, for fear of the impact to public opinion, now heavily steared by Millennial social media presence. Roseanne Barr’s racist tweek led to the immediate cancelling of her TV series relaunch. Several theater companies canceled the plays of Israel Horovitz following a multitude of sexual misconduct allegations. While such allegations against Horovitz had been raised decades before, only now are theater companies dealing with the issue in ernest.

Is it a coincidence that the voice of corporate social responsibility is being heard and acted upon so visibly today, across industries and sectors? Has something changed that makes the voice of the public more consequential than in earlier years? Perhaps a hot job market combined with a multitude of brand choices are forcing corporations to compete like never before for market share, mind-share, and talent. Perhaps the sense of heightened political vulnerability with the dramatic switch from Obama to Trump, undergirded by continued social dissatisfaction, has motivated government to keep powerful companies somewhat more accountable, at least for the most visible issues. Whatever the cause, the dramatic nature of this tonal shift stands in stark contrast to the status quo even a few years ago.

In the lifetime of Millennials, corporations have been deemed to have personhood, with rights to free speech, including political spending. At an individual level, such rights come with responsibilities. Corporate responsibility, in the last few decades, has largely been limited to shareholder obligations. At the corporate level, it is only in the last few years that individuals are being held accountable by leadership. Millennials, have instilled a new brand of social responsibility, that includes what companies owe to the public. Without it, companies put their clients and talent pool at risk. Even with the alarming amount of economic dislocation, many have found hope for capitalism, as corporations are starting to take responsibility rather than avoid it.