The reason why ‘everyday heroes’ emerge in atrocities #Beekhaybee

Despite the horror of events such as the Paris
attack, it is common to hear stories of
extreme, selfless bravery. What makes people
risk their lives to save others?

Ludovico Boumbas was meant to be enjoying a
friend’s quiet birthday meal when the shooting
began at the Belle Equipe in Paris on Friday. He
could have just dived for cover in terror, but
when he saw a gunman take fire at a woman
nearby, some other instinct took over. Friends
say that he dived in front of the oncoming
bullet, saving her life while ending his own.
The day before, almost 2,000 miles to the east,
Adel Termos in Beirut had shown similarly
selfless bravery. Seeing a man in an explosive
vest approaching a crowd of people, he tackled
him to the ground, detonating the bomb, a move
that undoubtedly saved lives .
Two ordinary men, who showed extraordinary
courage when atrocity struck. As the world
comes to terms with the events of the last few
days, we may hear many other tales of everyday
Why do some people show such amazing
bravery? For those who give their lives, we can
never know what was going through their minds,
but David Rand at Yale University has examined
many similar cases of everyday heroism to try
to understand the thinking behind these kinds of
selfless acts – and his findings should offer a
chink of light in these dark times.
When forced to make rapid, intuitive
decisions, we tend to act the most
Rand’s previous studies had examined a more
fundamental question: are we naturally
predisposed to being selfish, or selfless? One
idea was that our automatic response to any
event would be to get what we can for
ourselves, and we will only perform good deeds
when we have calculated that there will be a
greater reward later on. Being good, those
psychologists said, takes a conscious, deliberate
effort to suppress our worst impulses.
Yet in his experiments in the lab, Rand found
the opposite: the less time people had to
deliberate in his tests, the most selflessly they
acted. He asked participants to play simple
games for money, for instance. He found that
they were more likely to share their cash with
other players if they were rushed, so that they
had to act intuitively rather than analytically.
Equally, asking people to memorise a number –
suppressing their conscious thought – while
they played the games also made them more
generous. There was some variation between
people, of course, but on average, it seemed
that they were naturally predisposed to being
cooperative and kind. They didn’t have to think
about it; they just intuitively acted fairly. “Our
default is to cooperate,” Rand says.
That’s not to say that the behaviour doesn’t
have its benefits in the long-term; people who
are cooperative may be more likely to reap a
reward in the future, so perhaps we’ve all just
learnt that it pays to be nice. But the idea that
humans are naturally, intuitively generous is still
somewhat more optimistic than the idea that
our selfish desires are only suppressed by a
calculating, rational mind.
I had only two thoughts: one, I have to
get him out of the door, and two, ‘Oh my
God, this guy could kill me’ – Kermit
Rand was interested in more than just sharing
money, however. “I was curious whether the
pattern extended when the stakes were higher,”
he says, so he went on to study the jaw-
dropping examples of “extreme altruism”, the
kind we are now hearing from Paris and Beirut.
For material, he looked to people who had won
a Carnegie Hero Medal, ordinary civilians who
had risked their own life to save another. He
points to Christine Marty, for instance, who
swam across deep floodwater in Pennsylvania
to save a pensioner from drowning in his car. Or
Kermit Kubitz, who saw a stabbing in his local
bakery. “I had only two thoughts: one, ‘I have to
get him out of the door,’ and two, ‘Oh my God,
this guy could kill me, too,’” he later said. “I
ended up on my back with the knife in my ribs.”
Using media reports from around the time of
their heroism, Rand gathered statements from
around 50 of the medal-winners about their
good deeds. An independent team then rated
the descriptions across various psychological
factors to see whether they appeared to reflect
intuitive decisions or whether their bravery was
the result of deliberation, in which they had to
persuade themselves it was the right thing to
I just did what I felt like I needed to do.
You don’t think about someone making
that big a deal out of it – Daryl Starnes
In total, the vast majority – around 90% – of
the acts appeared to be based on gut instinct.
Importantly, they made these decisions even
when they would have had enough time to
hesitate and deliberate, and perhaps even
persuade themselves not to help. Yet in most
cases, those doubts don’t seem to have entered
their heads: within a split-second, they knew
they had to act for the good of another, even if
it meant risking their own life. “Almost across
the board, it was a highly automatic, intuitive
response,” he says.
Consider Daryl Starnes, for instance – a 70-
year-old man who dived into a burning vehicle
to save the woman inside. “I just did what I felt
like I needed to do. You don’t think about
someone making that big a deal out of it,” he
later said. Marty’s response was similarly
spontaneous as she saved the drowning man.
“I’m thankful I was able to act and not think
about it,” she said.
Being kind and selfless was part of their
Rand explains it like this. The brain has two
operating modes, he says, that could broadly be
called fast and slow-thinking. Slow-thinking is
conscious, analytical and logical, while fast-
thinking is the autopilot, built from habit, which
can react at a moment’s notice. Although the
heroism may seem to come out of the blue,
Rand thinks the extreme altruists had been
incubating their selfless tendencies throughout
their daily lives, so that helping others was part
of that “fast-thinking” autopilot. This may be
combined with a general impulsiveness, and
heightened capacity for empathy – evidence
from other extreme altruists suggest that their
brains respond very strongly to emotional
expressions of fear, and distress . “Emotion is
the force that drives you when you have these
intuitions,” Rand says. The result is that when
they faced their crisis, this fast-thinking took
over, leading them to act before doubt had
taken over.
Importantly, Rand thinks we could all learn from
their good actions. “If you get into habit of
being cooperative, that becomes the default, and
it will mean that you more likely to act that way
in other contexts,” he says. “You cultivate the
habits of virtue.”
When faced with terrorism, it is natural to take a
dark view of humanity – for fear and suspicion
to dominate our thoughts . But the stories of
Boumbas, Termos and the Carnegie Heroes
reminds us altruism and heroism can become
our second nature too – an instinct that cannot
be quenched even in the direst circumstances.