It’s 2 o’clock in the morning. You are on a deserted stretch of highway, one where you can safely drive 80 or 90 mph. (Because it’s so deserted, there is no police presence.) And, you want to get home. Because you have to be back at work at 9 AM tomorrow.
All of a sudden someone passes you like you were standing still. And, then you see that car go airborne, flip over a few times, and come to a crashing stop. You slam on your brakes and pull over on the shoulder- way over.
But, there’s gas everywhere. And, a chance for an explosion. You reach in, turn off the ignition. Debate about pulling the driver out. You know you can do great damage to that person, but you also know that car can blow up in seconds. But, what happens if the car blows up when you are reaching for that driver?
Or, imagine you were traveling on a train and saw someone pull out a series of guns. Would you be like those four young folks (three American and a Brit), acting immediately to thwart that attack at great personal risk?
Depending on who you are and how you’ve been trained and raised, you will rely on your gut feel and act. Or not. But, those that act on gut feel, putting themselves at great risk, actually are the ones we end up calling our ‘heroes’.
That’s the reason why we see some soldiers risk their lives for their compatriots. It’s because these folks have lived, trained, and worked together- through thick and thin, often while dead tired, so their actions becomes nearly autonomic. The same concept applies to emergency medical teams, for the same reasons.
But, we really can’t study how to ‘make’ heroes, how to get folks to act not in their best interests. Because often the risks do indeed outweigh the benefits- unless the actions that underlie the full risks never are realized. But, that doesn’t mitigate the risk, it just means someone was lucky.
As such, we can’t perform scientific studies to determine the best way to train heroes. (There was an apocryphal Soviet research study that claimed a certain treatment worked- because all the subjects were infected with the same disease strain, but only 1/2 were given the potential cure- and those treated lived. That sort of study is not ethical, nor legal to be effected in the United States or many other places in the world.)
This is exactly why Drs. David Rand and Ziv Epstein decided to study 51 recipients of the Carnegie Medal, which is awarded to those who risk their lives for others (for heroism, in other words). Their research findings were published in Plos One, in an article entitled ‘Risking Your Life without a Second Thought: Intuitive Decision-Making and Extreme Altruism‘. Almost none of the Medal recipients admitted they employed carefully reasoned thought, but instead acted quickly and intuitively.
That’s why we recognize them as heroes. Because it’s not everyone who would rush to help a stranger, at great personal peril.