Space & Innovation

Always Depend on the Kindness of Strangers? Nope

In a crisis, you'd better have someone around who you can rely on, because strangers aren't much help, finds a recent study.

A medical emergency can strike anywhere at anytime. In fact Americans make 36 million calls to emergency medical services (EMS) every year.

If and when an urgent medical issue arises, you better hope that you have someone around who you can rely on, because strangers aren't much help at all in a crisis, according to a study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health.

A mere 2.5 percent of people, or one in 39 cases, received assistance from strangers before EMS personnel arrived on the scene, found a pair of sociologists at Cornell University.

Eating in an Emergency: Photos

For their study, the team analyzed data from a cohort of 22,487 patients pulled from the 2011 National Emergency Medical Services Information System (NEMSIS), and combined that with socioeconomic and census data to assess various incidents on the county level.

The results showed a startling disparity in assistance received across racial lines. Caucasians were twice as likely to receive help than African-Americans, with the former receiving aid 4.2 percent of the time and the latter just 1.8 percent.

Bystanders in lower-income countries were less likely to less likely to lend a hand to a stranger during a medical emergency. In fact, those living in the most economically disadvantaged counties were the least likely to receive bystander support.

"Inequalities in bystander support across millions of medical emergencies each year in the United States may contribute to persistent racial and socioeconomic disparities in health," the authors conclude.

Bystander support can dramatically improve patient outcomes. Performing CPR on an individual suffering from cardiac arrest can double that person's chances of survival, the authors note, but only around a quarter of patients get that sort of help.

‘Stranger Danger' Makes People Less Empathetic

Using the Heimlech manuever when someone is choking, applying pressure to a bleeding wound, attaching a splint or assisting with medications require little more than basic first aid training. But even without knowing basic first aid, bystanders can still pitch in by providing water, a blanket or a cold compress.

Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, individuals living in less-densely populated counties were more likely to receive help from bystanders than though living in densely populated areas. But this makes sense in the context of the phenomenon known as the bystander effect.

The bystander effect occurs in a situation where passerbys ignore an individual in an emergency as a result of the presence of others. First conceptualized in the 1960s following the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, who was stabbed to death while observers and passerbys did nothing to help, the bystander effect creates a sense of diffused responsibility among the onlookers that prevents any one individual from acting.

Even if a group is slower to act the larger it gets, as suggested by the latest study and shown in past research, it only takes one person to make a difference in a crisis, potentially saving the life of another.

Video: Can a Stranger Look Exactly Like Me?

Extreme weather events, financial collapse, political unrest: With today's overabundance of apocalyptic worry, now is a good time to start thinking about what you’ll do if and when the bottom falls out. In a survival situation, shelter, fire and clean drinking water should be your top priorities, said Tom Brown, founder of Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracking, Nature and Wilderness Survival School. And, even though people can survive for up to three weeks without food, Brown said, extreme hunger can make you crazy. So it's worth stocking up on canned foods and other non-perishables. Read on to find out what else you can -- and really shouldn't -- eat when the cans run out.

DO: Pet food People end up eating pet food often enough -- and sales tend to go up during recessions -- that FDA standards require food made for animals to be suitable for humans to eat too, said Cody Lundin, founder and director of the Aboriginal Living Skills School in Prescott, Ariz. In an episode of the Discovery Channel show "Dual Survival", Lundin eats dog food cooked over a campfire -- and while he expresses hope that they'll catch raccoon for breakfast, he lived to tell the tale.

DO: Rodents It's easy to catch rats and other rodents, said Brown, author of "Tom Brown's Guide to City and Suburban Survival." Simply bury a five-gallon bucket in the ground up to its edges. Cover the mouth of the container with sticks and wood scraps, and wait for a startled mouse or chipmunk to scramble under the jumbled objects. The animal will fall right into your trap. Next, burn the hair off your prey, skin them, gut them and throw them into a stew pot with water and any grains, vegetables or flour you might have on hand. "Don't even bother filleting them or getting rid of the bones," Brown said. "Bone marrow is high in nutrition and protein."

DON'T: Leather During their infamous struggle against starvation, the Donner Party ate a wide variety of unappetizing objects, including leather, which is made from animal hides. Long ago, people used the tannins in oak tree bark to turn animal skins into leather, making it a safe food item. But modern leather products are tanned with chemicals that are surely poisonous, said Lundin, author of "When All Hell Breaks Loose: Stuff You Need to Survive When Disaster Strikes." Your belts may look as good as fruit roll-ups when you're really hungry. But it's best to leave them in the closet.

DO: Bugs Grasshoppers, cockroaches, ants, tarantulas: Virtually all insects are edible. Just make sure to cook them well enough to kill the wide variety of diseases they can carry, Brown said. You can even eat bees and scorpions as long as you remove their stingers first. One easy way to catch insects is to fill a sink with a little water and some food crumbs. Hungry bugs will go for the bait and either drown or get stuck in the tub. Ounce for ounce, Brown added, insects have up to four times more usable protein than other animals. Instead of a pound of beef, a quarter-pound grasshopper burger will do the same job.

DO: Weeds "Food plants grow everywhere," said John Kallas, director of Wild Food Adventures, an educational company, and author of "Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate." "All you need to do is go out in your backyard." You also need to build up some detailed knowledge about botany before all hell breaks loose because eating the wrong plants or the wrong parts of plants can kill you. Common vitamin-rich weeds include wild spinach, cattails, field mustard, garlic mustard, nipplewort and dandelions. No matter how hungry you are, Kallas warned, only eat a little amount of any one kind of vegetation at a time. "Dandelions have some vital chemicals that are great for you in small amounts, but too much will give diarrhea," he said. "That's what you don't want in a survival situation."

DON'T: Cardboard and Paper Cardboard boxes may seem appealing because they contain cellulose from wood pulp, which is used as a thickener, stabilizer and source of fiber in a variety of food products. And along with paper, cardboard can counter hunger pains by taking up space. But people cannot adequately digest the cellulose in cardboard and paper, Brown said. Also, many of these products are treated with chemicals that can be toxic.

DO: Acorns Like any nut, acorns can be delicious and filling, but you can't just pop them in your mouth like cashews. To make acorns edible, Brown advised, first take them out of their husks. Next, drop them in a pot of just-boiled water and let them steep for a couple hours. Drain and repeat this process two to four times until all of the bitter tannic acid is gone. At last, you can eat the acorns plain. You can roast them. Or you can grind them into flour that will accentuate your rodent stew. Play the "Dual Survival" challenge, featuring survival experts Cody Lundin and Dave Canterbury.