Thermometers vs. Thermostats: You Don’t Have to be a Bystander

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(Image courtesy of
(Image courtesy of

The black smoke was unmissable against the stark gray backdrop of winter.

Something on the back of an RV had caught fire while parked at an interstate travel plaza and rest stop just outside Elkhart, Ind., which is—ironically—where most RVs are manufactured.

I stopped the car and pulled out my phone, called 911, then hit record to capture video of the burning RV. I figured the explosion would be awesome if the fire reached the gas tank. A handful of cars pulled over too and the other travelers joined my gawking. Why do we like to watch things burn?

“God, I wonder if the owner knows their vehicle is on fire?” I asked.

Everyone around me shrugged.

And then it dawned on me that someone might be inside. Seemed unlikely. But possible.

“No one’s in there, right? Could someone be sleeping or showering?”

More shrugs.

I took a step toward the burning RV. Then hesitated. Then stopped.

Naw. They’re totally inside the building grabbing food or a cup of coffee…

I kept filming.

Minutes later, the fire trucks arrived, sirens screaming. And that’s when I saw it. Movement in the RV’s windows.

An elderly couple stepped off their RV—the combination of smoke filling up their RV and the sound of emergency workers pulling up next to them had woke them from an afternoon nap in the RV’s bedroom.

I took a deep breath and made eye contact with the guy next to me. I could see the same look in his eyes I must have had in mind.

“Oh my God. There were people in there.”

They lived.

What was presumably their home away from home burned to the ground in front of them. A total loss.

But one thought haunts me: What if they hadn’t woke up?

And I just stood there.

Doing nothing.

We Are Often Thermometers

It’s called the “bystander effect.” It’s a sociological phenomenon researchers Bibb Latane and John Darley observed and studied in the late 1960s and wrote about in The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn’t He Help?.

Sociologists say the presence of other people creates a “diffusion of responsibility.” It means people feel less pressure to take action since the responsibility to do so is now shared among everyone present.

But we also feel a need to behave in “correct and socially acceptable ways.” When others around us are doing something or not doing something, our brains take it as a signal that a similar response is most appropriate.

In other words, we often act like thermometers. We simply reflect the current temperature of our surroundings. As thermometers, we have no other function.

We Should Be Thermostats

I was listening to the guys at Inspiring Awesome talk about this. Thermometers versus thermostats. I liked the metaphor.

A thermostat ALSO can tell you the current temperature. But more importantly? It can serve as a change agent. If something is wrong? If something needs fixed or adjusted? The thermostat can begin the process of making things what people want or need them to be.

I just stood there. Being one of those assholes with a video camera even when a little voice inside me was telling me there was a chance lives were at stake.

But I didn’t step up.

What if they had died in there?

Another time, there was an 80-foot tree in our back yard with a failing root system. My neighbor told me they had spent years trying to convince the previous owner of my house to have the tree removed. I didn’t want to spend $2,000 to have it removed, so much like the former homeowner, I did nothing.

One night, a large storm system that days earlier had been a Gulf of Mexico hurricane blew into our neighborhood.

Tropical storm-force winds blew down the massive tree. A couple neighbors saw the giant fall. I felt the impact sitting on my living room sofa. When I ran to the back window, I saw it laying across our back yard, a totally destroyed garage beneath it.

But that’s not the important part.

The important part is that we had our three-month-old son sleeping in our upstairs bedroom. And I lose my breath every time I think about the wind blowing in his direction that night.

Because of a couple thousand dollars.

Because of apathy.

Because of carelessness.

We are so careless. With our health. Our safety. Our hearts. Our human relationships.

We are often thermometers. Just people getting caught up worrying about what other people think.

But we should be thermostats. Change agents. People who do something because something needs done. Because something can be done. And we can do it.

That family stranded on the side of the road with their vehicle hood open needs help.

That person sitting alone might want someone to say hi.

I don’t want to make any more stories about that time I could have done something.

Things DO NOT have to be this way.

Don’t wait for the person next to you to start running toward the fire. Just start running.

Maybe they’ll come too.

15 thoughts on “Thermometers vs. Thermostats: You Don’t Have to be a Bystander”

  1. Every day, I drive home from work through the heart of downtown Akron and I pass no less than four licensed panhandlers with signs; most of them read “Unemployed Disabled Veteran, Homeless, 4 Kids.”

    And after a few snarky comments about how I have to work and pay taxes, blah, blah, blah, I acknowledge that at least one of those four panhandlers probably is a homeless vet with a disability, and he’s probably sleeping at the Haven of Rest and could surely use the money I waste on bs I don’t need.

    There’s always a million good reasons not to do something. Usually one hidden reason why we should. And we ignore that most of the time.

    Thanks for a though-provoking read.

  2. Last October, I was looking for a professional painter. I asked around and was given the name of a local guy — 3rd generation painter and “Townie”. Before I called to him, I did some due diligence on him (naturally!). Turns out, over the summer, the painter was working on a job painting the outside of a house. The house next door were the painter was working was having a new roof put on. Evidently, one of the roofers was in distress and his co-workers were yelling, Help! We need help! Something is wrong with [insert name]! This painter dropped what he was doing, ran across the street, bounded up the ladder where the roofers were, determined the man had had a heart attack and performed CPR.

    The painter saved the man’s life.

    It was all over the local papers.

    A reporter interviewed the painter, asking what made him do it? The painter said, “I don’t know. I didn’t think about it. I just ran up the ladder…checked his vitals, noted he wasn’t breathing and performed CPR. I think I was on autopilot or something.”

    Yeah, I hired him.

    Great guy!

    I think some people have the innate ability to just DO. They don’t think, they DO.

  3. And this is exactly why people condone and cover for cheating too. Its too embarassing to be the one who steps up and says “hey that’s shitty, get out” or tell the betrayed person. Oooh but I don’t want to get involved… But we are all involved already. If you see it you can’t unsee it. Need more thermostats!

    1. I was really fascinated by “The Bystander Effect.” I’ve witnessed it so many times that when I read about it, it really made sense.

      I’m sure everyone has.

  4. I live in a fairly remote area so the custom is to always stop and check on people on the side of the road. There really isn’t a choice to be a thermometer here. Looking back on it I have never regretted stopping to help someone, but I’ve always felt bad about not checking on someone when I could have.

    One case in particular stands out in my mind. Back in 80s, before cell phones, I witnessed 2 drunk d-bags follow and harass a pretty girl through a parkade late at night. They were at bar I think and she looked like she was coming from an office. I followed them to make sure she got into her car ok, but I never said anything or announced myself. I suppose I did more than most people would have, but I have always been troubled by how alone and afraid she must have felt on that walk. Would it have been too much to yell out something and have them chase me instead? I certainly could have got away easily.

    1. It’s frustrating how apathetic the world seems to… everything.

      I choose to remain hopeful and try to be part of the group that does care.

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Matt Fray

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