Crying Wolf

I’m sure that in every culture and country there’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of frivolously raising an alarm. British boys and girls must endure the one about the Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf!’. He took delight in seeing his friends and family running to rescue him, especially when he could make a fool of them, so he cried ‘Wolf!’ whenever he felt like it. Finally, of course, the real wolf came and ate him (every single morsel!) whilst his friends and family ignored his cries.

Two lessons, I suppose – don’t pretend there’s danger when there isn’t, and don’t ever ignore an alarm.


So when the fire alarm sounded at 3.00 am this morning I had to take it seriously. I was sure, of course, that it must be a false alarm, as it always is, and I knew, in any case, that if the fire were real, I could jump from the window, or tie my sheets together and let myself down. But I dutifully pulled on some clothes and made my way along the corridor towards the muster point, though I was immediately turned back well before I got there by apologetic staff sent to reassure us.

I have only twice been woken by fire alarms at hotels. Once, now, here in France, and once in Hemel Hempstead, where two hundred guests assembled in the car park and the duty manager called out our names from the hotel’s register. In both cases they were false alarms.

And once, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, drinking beer with friends one summer evening in a thatched pub on the edge of the city, someone came running in and cried ‘Fire!’. And indeed there was a fire and the whole pub burned down over the next forty minutes.

So, on the whole it’s sensible to do the thing we’re trained to do.

That said, my friend Caroline, in the room next to mine, didn’t even hear last night’s alarm. The whole hotel was up and about, and running down corridors, and she slept through it all, and might have been burned to a crisp. If you’re going to cry ‘Wolf!’ cry loudly!

4 thoughts on “Crying Wolf

  1. Dear Adam

    I’m glad you took the alarm seriously!

    I always book a room ext to the fire escape AND I check the stairway leading to outside just in case as in some hotels stairways are used as store rooms. I move out when I discover that blockages are on the fire escape route!

    I was once in a hotel fire and I’m always watchful wherever I am. We must be responsible for ourselves BUT why didn’t you wake up Catolibe ???? At least to hammer on her door??v

    Glad you are safe!!

    Xx Jill


    • Good question! I hadn’t forgotten her, nor wished to see her burnt to a crisp, but by the time I was making my way down the corridor to her room the staff had already announced it was a false alarm….


    • Yes, it’s fascinating, but I’m not sure that the experiment tells us very much about real behaviour. It’s an artificial situation and the subject’s failure to react when no one else does doesn’t tell us much, because it would never happen like that. The others would react and the consensus to evacuate would emerge very rapidly. Human reactions are unpredictable when others’ behaviour is implausible and irrational. It tells us only how people behave in the artificial situations created by imaginative social psychologists. There was a famous experiment where one subject inflicted pain on another subject when told to (the second subject was actually an actor) and this was taken to show that people will do anything when they feel subservient. But in my view it just showed that people will do anything when they are the subjects of an experiment organised by social psychologists!


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