My friend Emily passes along a report in The Washington Post of a highly unusual hold-up at a Capitol Hill dinner party. When an armed robber burst onto the back patio and demanded money, a woman improbably nicknamed “Cha-Cha” replied that, as they were just finishing dinner, he should join them for a glass of wine. He took a sip and, impressed, tucked his gun into his waistband. He stuck about for a little more wine and some cheese, asked the group for hugs, then walked off peacefully.
It’s an unusual story, but perhaps not ultimately as surprising as the article makes it out to be. Jonathan Glover relates a parallel story in his excellent book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century . Police in apartheid-era South Africa have just forcibly broken up a protest rally, and one cop (billy club in hand) is chasing a female protester down an isolated dead-end alley when she stumbles and loses her shoe. Instinctively, he stops to pick it up and hand it to her. His manners are more deeply ingrained than his police traning, and that’s just what one does when a lady loses her shoe. Suddenly, beating this woman up is no longer an option; he sheaths his club and silently walks away.
We all act on a variety of social scripts, from which we find it enormously psychologically difficult to deviate once they’re activated. Often, this is a problem, causing people to follow orders when they shouldn’t, or to stand by in a crisis when they ought to be rendering aid. Sometimes it has more benign effects. The loss of the shoe suddenly shunted the policeman from his cop-script to his chivalry-script. Something similar probably happened with the burglar.
The crucial move here is that he wasn’t directly challenged within the terms of the burglar script: The guests didn’t refuse outright to hand over their money, but only offered him some wine first, so there was no need to move on to Act II: further threats. But since he hadn’t asked for wine, the offer was not in line with the compliant-hostage script either: It was a social courtesy. Once he’d accepted, he was reading from the party-guest script. And holding up one’s host at a dinner party is simply not the done thing.
The seemingly odd request for hugs may also hint at why that script proved so sticky. It’s no great leap to suppose that if you’re a 20-something trying to rob people at gunpoint, your life has not gone quite as you’d hoped. Probably you don’t get invited to many pleasant dinner parties with nice wine and cheese. That momentary feeling of acceptance into a social world where people don’t need to rob each other may have been worth more than the cash he could have gotten off the guests. It’s frequently noted that a perverse consequence of our prison system is that we end up placing petty criminals in an intensive training program for serious crime. But more than that, we reinforce their identity as criminals. That’s not to say we can rehabilitate felons with a group hug, but stories like this might prompt us to think more about how punishment can be carried out without further cementing the criminal script.