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He Turned Toward the Gunfire

August 23, 2011

On January 8, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner walked up to where U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding a meeting with constituents outside of a Safeway supermarket in the La Toscana Village mall near Tucson, Arizona, and shot her point-blank above the left eye with a Glock 19 semi-automatic pistol.  In the melee that followed, Loughner shot 19 people, killing 6, including Chief Judge John Roll of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green.

Unspeakable horror is often met with remarkable heroism, and much was evident that morning. Dorwan Stoddard died shielding his wife from the gunman’s bullets; she was hit but survived.  Patricia Maisch grabbed a loaded magazine of bullets out of Loughner’s hands, which caused him to drop it, giving everyone precious seconds with which to react.  Loughner was then tackled to the ground by Bill Badger, a 74 year old retired Army Colonel who himself was bleeding from where a gunshot has just grazed his head.

One instance of heroism that day, however, has stuck out for me ever since hearing about this shooting and the circumstances surrounding it.  Nearby, Daniel Hernández, a college-aged aide to Representative Giffords, heard the gunshots and—in an instant—did something I do not believe I would ever do.  He turned toward the gunfire.  He did not turn away; he did not dive to the ground.  Instead, he turned and ran toward the chaos and bloodshed he surely knew was happening.  He then staunched Representative Gifford’s bleeding, a critical act that is credited with saving her life.

It is customary in personality and social psychology to believe that behavior can spring from either one of two different sources.  One is the person’s character—all the dispositions that make up his or her personality.  The other is the situation—the set of external circumstances that push a person toward an action and or its opposite.   The usual assumption is that the cause of a person’s behavior is either/or.  Either it is a product of a person’s character or it is an offspring of situational pressures.  As origins of human behavior, personality and situation play a zero-sum game.

But the reaction of Daniel Hernández calls that assumption into question.  For many if not most of us, the situation that day would have been a fundamentally different one from the one he faced.  For us, reacting to the gunfire would have been an exercise in confusion, not knowing what to do, thinking perhaps rightly that running toward the gunfire would have made us just more pistol-fodder.

Daniel Hernández’s situation was different.  He was training as a nurse’s aide, and as such was familiar with emergency situations and what to do in them.  He knew that if he got to the crime scene, he needed to determine who was still alive and who needed immediate care.  He knew his first step was to check people’s pulses and whether they were breathing.  When he saw that Giffords had been shot in the head, he knew that she was the first priority, that she had to be moved so that she would not die of asphyxiation, and that he had to stop her bleeding as best he could.  When the medics came, he knew his role shifted from a medical one to one of providing emotional support.

Personality and situation cannot be divided because the stuff of our experience, training, and preparation changes the possible outcomes we can achieve in the situations we face.  As such, the content of who we are changes the very nature of the situations we encounter in everyday life. Hernández, at least in part, ran toward the gunfire because he knew what to do when he got there.  This was an emergency medical situation, and researchers have verified that people with such training are more likely to intervene.  For the rest of us, without the training that Hernández had attained, it is difficult to figure how we could have stepped into his situation and faced his choice.  Perhaps the best we could have done is no further harm. [See, for example, Shotland, R. L., & Heinold, W. D. (1985). Bystander response to arterial bleeding: Helping skills, the decision making process, and differentiating the helping responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 347 356.]

But, wait a minute.  I have screwed up.  I forgot to relay the lede of this story, the key notion, the question that frames it and puts it all into perspective.  That question is:  So when did you say you were taking that CPR course?

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  1. The Seven Paradoxes of Heroism « SPSP

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