Have you heard of the major fire in 1977 at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky? 1200 people were in the Cabaret room, having a great time, waiting for the main act. Unknown to them a fire was raging on the premises and moving towards them. Walter Bailey, a young assistant waiter, had seen it and warned his supervisor who shrugged and ignored the looming crisis.
So Walter strode onto the stage, grabbed a mike and told the people about the fire and the exits they should use to evacuate the room immediately. Surprisingly nobody moved, probably wondering if there was really a threat and thinking about the expense of their ticket, how much they were enjoying the food, how they were looking forward to the main act. They did not want to rush out if they did not have to.
They looked around to see what the others were doing lulled into complacency by the non-urgency of the others. Shortly after that the power failed and toxic smoke filled the ballroom and people faced the challenge of getting out. Walter Bailey repeatedly went into the ballroom and dragged out as many people as he could. 165 people died in that fire and if it had not been for Walter the death toll would have been many hundreds more.
Each person remained passive, reassured by the passivity of others as proved by a psychological study conducted in the 1960s by John Darley and Bibb Latane. They asked their subjects to sit in a room and fill out a questionnaire, sometimes alone and sometimes in a group of 3. Gradually the researchers pumped smoke into the room. When the subject was alone in the room he or she would notice the smoke and leave the room to report it. When subjects were in a group of 3 they were much less likely to react.
Having other people to guide you does not always help if they are in the same situation as you, with the same assumptions. They can lull you into thinking none of you have a problem when in fact all of you have a problem.
In everyday life we need to be able to think for ourselves instead of passively following the majority. When we are aware there is a problem , we need to step back and think things through and act.
Sourced from Tim Harford’s Cautionary tales
Jaya Machet is an Executive coach, Visual & Business Story Powered Communication Facilitator. She helps humanise the workplace through meaningful communication.