In an anthropology course, one of the social constructs we examined was altruism and the difference between how strangers help each other in small towns where everybody knows everybody else, versus large metropolitan areas, where nobody knows anybody. The subject was a man pretending to be drunk and passed-out in the middle of a popular walkway. As you would guess, in a small town, everyone who encountered the man rushed to help, whereas in the city, most everyone either ignored or walked around the man.
The study did not prove that country folk are more altruistic than city folk, but rather, people are all similarly altruistic, and navigate situations differently depending on context, social connections and their accountability therein. The tighter the social network (as found in small towns), the greater chances a passerby will be recognized, (or at least noticed) and called out for ignoring someone in obvious need, and with greater repercussions. The study theorized that while many people are motivated by genuine altruism, they are also compelled by selfishness and fear of being recognized and shamed for not stopping to help someone in need.
I took this course years ago, but this detail has stuck with me ever since. It seems both comforting, and remarkably lonely.
These guys were passed out at the playground where my daughter and her neighborhood friends play. Just out of the shot was a crowd of kids pushing to get a peek. One of the kids asked me, “Are they dead?” I said “I don’t think so.” (One of the guys was half singing something.) I had to keep shooing the kids back to the playground while the paramedics were on their way.
Here in Minneapolis, especially in Loring Park, this is not an uncommon sight—there are many people who are not doing well, and are in obvious need. For some of them, like these two men (and another man who, a couple weeks ago, collapsed and hit his head on the sidewalk right in front of me), I called the paramedics and hung out while help arrived. But for many of them, I walk right past, remembering that cruel anecdote from anthropology and wondering if I am being filmed as part of a study on altruism and how some wicked people can just walk on by.