The Sound of Danger and the Direction You Run

In reading this weeks lesson materials, particularly around the reticence of individuals to act in ambiguous, overt, but typically potentially dangerous situations, I immediately thought of an analogy that is popular with military service members that has roots in this very discipline. It’s a bit of a generalization, but the logic and rationale are both sound, and backed by psychological research. Hopefully, it will be enjoyable, informative, and will shed some light for further discussion on why many vets feel the way they do about their commitment to step into harm’s way, as they see it, for their countrymen.

In Colonel Dave Grossman’s (US Army, Ret.) acclaimed book “On Combat” (2004), he discusses the depths of the fight-or-flight repsonse, pointing to a number of differing factors and thousands of in-depth studies that determine, amid many fascinating facts on the human psyche under stress, the one thing that has stuck with me throughout my life since I read it: when reacting to the presence of a malicious threat, like an explosion or the sound of gunshots, an enormous majority of human beings will involuntarily experience the urge to put as much distance between the disturbance and themselves. The other minority, by contrast, will move toward the sound. Col Grossman, considered one of the premier researchers on the psychological impact of warfare and violent conflict, has written multiple books on the subject, and while general in many of his assertions, raises the question of whether or not different people are better wired for danger than others.

The matter is discussed at some decent length in the course material, giving a considerable amount of attention to the bystander effect, or, “which states that people are less likely to help in an emergency when other bystanders are present” (Schneider et al, 2012). There are a number of aspects that are addressed by this, but nowhere is it more prevalent in terms of simplicity than it is in Grossman’s analogy of the sheep, the sheepdog, and the wolf.

For the purposes of the analogy, titles are meant to be assigned in a very broad way. I feel that it’s necessary to note the distinct absence of any derogatory intent before continuing.

In the paradigm, most people in the world are sheep. This has no connotation other than the fact that, in a simplistic description, most people want to stay at home, spend time with their family and friends, and generally be left alone to live their lives absent any threats or (relative) dangers. Then, a few people are wolves. The wolves live by hunting the sheep, dominating and harnessing them to their own will. The wolves, of course, constitute those who would intend harm to the population in general, or a group in particular. Also a general connotation, it is fairly safe to say that those who would do harm to the population are not large in number, but, as with wolves and sheep, they don’t need to be to wreak havoc, per se.

The third element of Grossman’s paradigm is the sheep dog. Leaving aside elements of control that sheepdogs fill, in this analogy, the dogs are there to protect and defend the sheep from the wolves. Says Grossman, “the sheep aren’t fond of the sheep dog. He looks an awful lot like the wolf” (Grossman et al, 2004). The sheep would not trade places with the sheepdog, because it is not a sheepdog. It wants no part in the dog’s grisly work. If any reader chooses to disagree with this last portion in particular, ask yourself if spending cold nights in the mud sleeping under a truck and waiting for the enemy to attack sounds like a good time. If you don’t immediately feel averse to the idea… well, you may want to reconsider stopping by a military recruiting office, or maybe the local precinct or jail. The sheep dog lives with, among, and for the sheep. It is his/her primary concern. When the wolf comes, the sheepdog exists to stand up to it, and drive it away from the flock. In terms of the number of sheepdogs to a flock, the balance with wolves is rarely in their favor. So with cops, EMTs, soldiers, and security professionals, the balance between the good guys and the bad guys hardly seems fair on a large scale (Grossman et al, 2004).

Grossman’s research, while varied, backs this idea. Particularly in the analogy of the sheep, deindividuation is strongly used and is supported by class materials (Schneider et al, 2012). Hence the apportioned comments as to the proportional representation of those who run toward the sound of gunfire, not away from it. There’s a long-running debate over what makes someone run toward danger; generally, most agree that it is a trait that can be developed. As an Afghan war vet, I find it interesting and engaging to consider the bystander effect from the vantage point of societal roles. It’s a feasible argument to say that most people didn’t intervene in the Kitty Genovese case because it simply wasn’t part of who they were or what they do. Were a proverbial sheep dog present, the day might have ended a bit differently.

Grossman, D., Christensen, W. (2004). On Combat; the Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace. PPCT Research Publications.

Schneider, F., Gruman, J., Coutts, L. (2012). Applied Social Psychology. 2nd Ed. Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications.


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