This Is Why People Risk Their Lives And Become Heroes

Australian VC winner Ben Roberts-Smith. Paul Kane/Getty Images

People who risk their lives to save strangers may do so without deliberation, according to an analysis of statements from more than 50 civilian heroes.

The research, conducted by David Rand from Yale University and colleagues and published in the journal PLOS ONE, look at why people sometimes act with extreme altruism.

Scientists studying human cooperation recruited hundreds of participants to rate 51 statements made during interviews by recipients of the Carnegie Hero Medal, given to civilians who risk their lives to save strangers.

“We wondered if people who act with extreme altruism do so without thinking, or if conscious self-control is needed to override negative emotions like fear,” says David Rand.

“Our analyses show that overwhelmingly, extreme altruists report acting first and thinking later.”

The authors found that the statements were judged to be mostly intuitive by both participants and text analysis, even in situations where the “lifesaver” would have sufficient time to deliberate before acting.

The results suggest high stakes extreme altruism may be largely motivated by automatic, intuitive processes.

Dr Rand says intuitive responses are not necessarily genetically hard-coded.

He believes people learn that helping others is in their own long-term interest and therefore develop intuitive habits of cooperation rather than having an instinct preserved in humans by evolution.

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