Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Better Dead Than Rude

Suppose it's late at night, and you're walking along a street alone. You see up ahead of you a group of three rough-looking male youths walking towards you, wearing hoodies and street clothes. They're about 30m away, and with both of you going at average walking speed of about 5km/h, that will give you around  10.8 seconds until they're right in front of you. You're a young male yourself and decently athletic, but in a fight you'd have a hard time against three of them, especially if they're carrying a knife or a gun.

Your instinct says that these guys look like trouble. But they haven't done anything specific that you can point to. So what do you do?

As far as I can guess, the following two options cover about a hell of a lot of human responses:

a) If you're a polite SWPL type who's been dutifully trained to ignore all your evil and wicked prejudices, you'll just keep walking, and hope that they're not up to anything. If you cross the street, you'll contribute to the isolation alienation these kids must already feel from society. And honestly, how likely is it that anything will really happen?

b) If you're more prudent and you're worried about your safety, or a SWPL type without the courage of your see-no-evil-hear-no-evil convictions, you'll walk across the street to try to avoid them. They'll know that you crossed the street to avoid them, and that you thought they were thugs, but you might have needed to go that way anyway, so you've got some deniability. In any case, you can then see if they cross as well, and decide what to do.

So here's my question:

If you think there's a couple of percent chance that these guys might try to rob you or beat you up, why on earth don't you just turn around and start sprinting away from them as soon as you get that feeling?

Seriously, think about it. Option a) is disastrous. Once they're in front of you, you're screwed - if they pull a knife or a gun, your chances of being able to escape are really low, particularly if they surround you. And once they're at close range, it's a lot easier for them to grab you or threaten you in other ways. If you need to get away, you've got zero head start, so you've got to be a significantly faster sprinter than them. All three of them.

Option b) is a little better, but not much. If they follow you across, a lot of people will just keep walking anyway, or maybe try the truly devious strategy of walking a little faster! Yeah, muggers never thought of that tactic or how they might circumvent it. The best that can be said is that you're now approaching each other at a slightly slower rate. Perplexingly, even the people who cross the street still often won't start sprinting when the other guys cross as well. They're essentially option a) people in disguise.

If you run away as soon as you see danger, you've now got a 30m head start, which will make up for a reasonable deficit in running ability. They're only going to chase after you if they were already intending you harm, at which point you'll be damn glad to have a lead on them. And the reality is that most weapons they could be carrying aren't really effective at 30m. Even if they have a handgun and fire it at you, they're going to be firing at a moving target, in a poorly lit area, probably without any real weapons training, and likely while trying to chase after you. To put these factors in perspective, trained policemen in shooting confrontations have an average accuracy of about 30%. And this is for shots that are fired at a distance of 7 to 10 feet on average! (Randall Collins makes the same point). Bottom line? You'd have to be very unlucky to get hit at 30m with a hundgun fired by a gangbanger as you were running away.

And all this is totally obvious. Which is where the 'better dead than rude' concept (which John Derbyshire uses) comes in. A lot of people are made seriously awkward by the prospect that a bunch of random teenagers at night might laugh them or that some anonymous stranger will be offended that you ran away. But so what? You're never going to see them again. Does their opinion of you or their likely offense really matter for anything?

Apparently, by revealed preference, it does. And this is kind of astounding. Put it this way - you wouldn't have to explain why you should run away to a rabbit or a squirrel. As soon as they think you're a threat, they're outta here. Which makes complete sense.

If you're with other people, obviously this becomes a lot harder. Especially if you're a guy who's with a girl - even if you both run at the same time, if you're a faster runner then you're leaving the girl behind to the hoods. Not a great plan.

But if it's just me on my own? I'm getting the hell out of there as soon as I feel uncomfortable. I can't fight off three guys, but at my peak I could run 400m in 56-odd seconds. With a 30m head start, I like my odds that they're going to find it easier to mug someone else than to catch me. Let the hoods think what they want - better rude than dead.


  1. Why are you out walking in an area where you are in fear of your life? If you had any sense you would have called a cab. So assuming that you assessed the risk of being outside as up to a robbery you have to balance the financial risk vs. damage running away does to your self respect. Observing the amount spend on vanity items most people put quite a high value on their self esteem, and hence the hidden cost of running away is prohibitive.

  2. Ha, good point about the cab. In my case, it's either that the presence of ne'er-do-wells is unusual for the area, or it's a walk short enough that a cab is impractical. But the point is well taken.

    I think the 'damage to self-esteem' view is definitely part of it. But I don't think it's a rational tradeoff between self-esteem and risk, at least to the extent that I really doubt whether people will be time-consistent about it.

    In other words, suppose the person doesn't run away and ends up getting mugged. Will they still look back and think, 'Well, the probability of getting rolled was pretty low ex ante and I would have felt like an ass to run away too soon. So overall I'm happy I kept walking, even though it led to a bad outcome?'

    My guess is not, and that they'll look back and feel like a moron for walking towards danger. Now that's consistent with other behavioural mistakes too, but it makes me think that the feeling of loss of self-esteem is a hit worth taking. My dignity is pretty cheap!

  3. I think for most people it will not be a conscious, rational trade-off. In addition, the earlier decision to walk (whether made consciously or not) will subconsciously influence further decisions: 'I already decided this area is safe enough'. Crossing the road will be seen as a reasonable precaution (by any witnesses or your internal self-esteem gauge), running away would carry a heavier toll.
    Living in the Netherlands robbery is of course possible, but I doubt extensive bodily harm figures in most peoples mental calculations. Nevertheless I'm usually firmly in the better safe than sorry camp.