The Psychology of Heroism: Why Some People Leap in Front of Bullets

During the shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Oak Creek, Wis., some people confronted danger and saved lives, while most others scampered for the exits. What explains the difference?

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Mario Tama / Getty Images

Kamaldeep Kaur affixes a photo of wounded police officer Lt. Brian Murphy during a candlelight vigil in Union Square for victims of the Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting on Aug 8, 2012 in New York City.

On Aug. 5, when a gunman drove to a Sikh temple outside Milwaukee and started shooting his 9-mm handgun, some ran and some leapt to stop him. One of the six who died was temple president Santwat Singh Kaleka, who has been hailed as a hero by witnesses who say he tried to disarm the shooter. The first cop on the scene, Brian Murphy, took nine bullets as he also tried to help. Miraculously, Murphy wasn’t killed.

Rajesh Sachar / AP

Why do some people confront danger while most scamper for the exits? Altruism emerges in many disasters. A few weeks ago, three women came forward to say they survived the cinema shooting in Aurora, Colo., because their boyfriends shielded them. All three men are dead. In January, when the colossal cruiser Costa Concordia foundered on the western coast of Italy, a 57-year-old crewmember stayed aboard and helped others even as his captain — and thousands of passengers — abandoned ship. Thirty-two people died.

(PHOTOS: Sikh Temple Shooting: Wisconsin Community Reacts to Shocking Attack)

The difficult thing about studying those who are altruistic during calamities is that most of them die. Also, we like to create heroes. As researchers Selwyn Becker and Alice Eagly pointed out in the journal American Psychologist in 2004, the idea of heroism exists in virtually every human culture ever recorded — from cave paintings and folklore to the dawn of literature and right up to, say, The Dark Knight Rises.

Because heroism is so deeply valued, Becker and Eagly define it as not only noble risk taking but also something selfish, a way to ensure status. Earlier this year, the journal Evolutionary Psychology published a study by two psychologists who found that participants who willing to endure pain — having to put their hands into a tub of ice for 40 sec., or being dunked into a tank of water — were not only judged to be more likable but also given significantly more money from an $1,170 pot that could be divvied up any way the other student volunteers wanted.

The study was small — 78 participants — and none were threatened with death. But the authors concluded that “engaging in ‘self-sacrificial behavior’ is a profitable long-term strategy.” In short, heroic and egotistical impulses can arrive at the same moment. But can we choose between them?

(MORE: Colorado Movie Theater Shooting: Remembering the Victims)

The U.S. Department of Defense has funded studies at Yale designed to examine the difference between service members who are steely during and after combat and those who break. Psychiatrist Deane Aikins, who supervises some of those studies, discourages the idea that heroism is a choice. “The hard part for many people to understand is that the man even being alive is a miracle,” he says, referring to Murphy, the cop in Wisconsin. “It may be that some people have stress hormones that run cooler in dangerous situations.” But after studying hundreds of veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, Aikins believes that most tried to run but couldn’t. “Random luck and surviving,” he says, defines many who survive to be called heroes.

Aikins does offer one idea about those who help others and then live to be called heroes: they cultivate social bonds before and after the crisis. Service to the military or to a police department pays little in wages, but it can offer the remuneration of social ease and acceptance. In 2005, the Journal of Personality published a study that examined why some non-Jews helped rescue people from the Nazis and why others did nothing. They found that those who had helped were more likely to report risk-taking behavior — but the strongest correlation was with those who said they interact with friends and family on a regular basis.

Defining a hero is harder than defining a coward — the latter of whom Ambrose Bierce got right: “One who, in a perilous emergency, thinks with his legs.” Those who saved people in Colorado and Wisconsin probably acted impulsively, unthinkingly, randomly — but they did not run for the exits.

MORE: Woman Loses Legs After Saving Her Children in Indiana Tornado

31 comments
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Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

When No One's Watching?

What about the Heroes who act -- when no one is watching?  And no one could ever know?     Are THEY looking for social advantage?  How does this "test" take them into account?  What about the heroes who just don't want the limelight?  Are there none of them?  I'm sure they are incredibly selfish to hold their heroism in where no one can see it.   Perhaps this study -- and Time's adulation of it -- are a bit premature and not well thought out?    But then.. that IS time, is it not?  Full of sound, fury, and insignificant studies?

John Wallace
John Wallace

Altruismamp;Selfishness Evolved Together

Had to

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

Interestingly enough, altruism could be viewed as a form of selfishness.  We don't want "cheaters" to succeed in what they do because the results are damaging to society.  No sane person would want to live in a fail society.  Therefore, are we altruistic for others or ultimately for our own survival and the survival of our own family?

Deutcher Konig
Deutcher Konig

Placing ones body as a shield when being fired upon with a .223 cal

round at close range will only assure that a larger, deformed bullet...a more deadly

bullet passes into the second body.  This is all "feel good"

fluffy fluff...distraction...distortion...propaganda.

jesuguru
jesuguru

Then why did all three boyfriends die and all three girlfriends live to tell of their heroism?

Skunk Love
Skunk Love

It's really sad that so many major news sources publish non-peer reviewed, speculative trash like this and call it psychology.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

It's why psychology has such a bad reputation among the sciences.  Any magazine can practice it without penalty, and most do.

Stephen Ryan
Stephen Ryan

Every once in a while you run into a study like this.  Some pusillanimous jerk tries to justify his sleazy existence by nullifying, in one way or another, the conduct of better people than himself. Whether it is a soldier or a fireman or policeman taking his metier seriously, he or she transcends the rest of society, asking nothing in return for his or her courage.  It is too simple an idea for some lesser people to accept or grasp.

All_Right
All_Right

I wish I had stopped reading as soon as I saw "Time" at the top. Just the kind of left wing whiny crap one would expect from the COWARDS at Time. Total waste of electronic bits. I was hoping to find something useful for my personal safety class. I guess I did... NEVER RELY ON Time Magazine for ANY information. EVER.

David Bramer
David Bramer

 Department -of Defense-funded studies, like the one cited, are always so leftwing. I can see why, as a conservative, you would be so suspicious.

soljerblue
soljerblue

Interesting how all these PhD's try to make the heroic impulse out to be something selfish, almost animal, rather than a higher human emotion or impulse.  How about the virtues of love, responsibility for others -- family, friends, members of your congregation, etc.?  "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."  Tell you what -- anyone who ever served in a line infantry unit, or a combat flight crew understands the issue far better than the lab weenies who come up with these studies, or the poodles of the press who write about them.

k273
k273

Well said, sir. Very well said.

joedoakes202
joedoakes202

Fathers teach it to their son's and daughters . . .been going on since the beginning of time . . .

 . . .

October 21, 2010

Dear President Obama,

Mr. Obama the American people want a divorce.

Every legitimate poll represents this core belief.  As a child of divorce I have an experience I would like to share with you in an effort to explain how this is going to go down, it is going to be a little messy, but the America I know, and love, can handle it.  Any child who has been through a divorce, in my case one with a physically abusive parent; blames themselves for the breakup.  So when you blame the citizens of this country for not living up to your expectations, after being abused for the past 23 months, they get more than a little upset.  In my case I have, and had, a father who stood up for me, when no one else would.  Hear’s the story; the short version.

In the 70’s my mother began hitting me.  I don’t care the reason.  There is no reason to harm an innocent child, as I once was.  As time wore on, and the abuse continued, my father decided it was time to call it quits, and obtain custody.  Who do you think the judge put me with Mr. Obama?  My father the one trying to do the right thing?  Or my mother?  The one who was abusing me.  My mother.  My life was over.  For a short and hellish time I was sealed in tighter than a submarine air lock with a lunatic.  I can’t describe what I survived.  But I did.  Not sure if I would have made it passed the ripe old age of 6, but for one man, my father.  You see one day he came over for the weekend pickup, and caught her in the act of sorts.  All I remember then was him ordering me to pack my Snoopy suite case, and promising me I’ll never have to see my mother again, I’m leaving out an awful lot here because, frankly, if I recall much more of it I’ll be heading for a bar.  I drink to forget.  But it never goes away.  I’m told it will never go away.  So be it.  One thing that sticks out as if it happened yesterday is my father taking decisive action to save his son.  He broke the security chain clean off a steel frame door.  He pushed the door so hard it went into the closet door.  As my abusive mother tried to hold it back.  Then holding her back, he told me to pack.  I’m a lucky man to have a father like that.  I wish everyone had a father like my dad.  Do you know how strong you have to be to do that Mr. Obama.  Mentally and physically?  Are you that strong?  John McCain, he was, and is that strong, just too noble to beat you.  What a shame.

Skipping ahead here a bit, guilt took its inevitable course, and I’m about 8, knee deep in what parents do when they feel guilt.  Buy lots of useless crap for their kids.  So the old man walks in the room, steps on a toy, and declares, “If you don’t clean up this room I’m throwing everything away!”  A short time later, having failed to comply, with the snap of a black plastic bag, everything on the floor, gone.  To this day not a tool or my home for that matter is out of place, I still think my father will jump out of a closet, and give me an order to clean it up, or else.  You see, from a young age my father taught me that in order to command, one must learn to obey, and to lead by example.  Then, I had no idea of the importance of this.  As a young man, and now a father, this has become a rock in the foundation of my character.  It is obvious to me that you do not possess this, and that frightens me, and many Americans.  

On November 2, 2010 Americans will walk into those polls, and decide if they want to rip the steel door off the frame, and save future generations from abuse, or allow it to continue.  American’s have a conscience, and a deep desire to risk their lives for innocent life.  We do not steal, we work.  We do not attack, we defend.  We do not lie, we speak boldly.  The ballots to be cast for Republicans will stand as a testament to the character of the American people, should you abuse them further, should those newly elected join in that abuse, the political wrath you, and they, will feel will be enormous.

Do us all a favor, stop beating the kids, the black and blues are starting to show.

Respectfully,

Joe Doakes

See the Light
See the Light

Heroism is what MEN do.  In leftist pussified America, where half of all children are raised by single mothers (most of whom have kicked their husbands to the curb), heroism is in decline.

The lesson mothers teach their sons is, "You are worthy beyond measure.  Don't take any risks.", even if they're thugs working on a third strike.

The lesson men teach their sons is, "Suck it up.  Pain is a good thing because it means you're not dead yet. Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

Mothers teach sons to save themselves.  Men teach sons to save others.

Bershawn300
Bershawn300

So in your title, you raise the question about "why some people leap in front of bullets", and in the article don't answer that question, but instead tell us that, basically, there is no such thing as heroism, it's mostly just fight or flight response combined with luck?

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

In the Leftist world of Time, sure.   Leftist heroes are those who luck out at the pork barrel, take more than they can hold, and dribble resources back to their nesting place -- they are heroes because of what they dribble as they stagger away.  Count on the fact that they'll be back.  To "rehero" another day.

n00bs@uc3
n00bs@uc3

Egotism?  Maybe - I can't speak for anyone but myself.  I'm guessing that most people that put themselves in harm's way to protect another do so because they know that (in most cases) no one else will.  And if said "harm" isn't confronted, it will continue to do harm indefinitely.  It's just f*cking logic -- some can apply it, some cannot, and some simply don't want to take it on.

t1oracle
t1oracle

"having to put their hands into a tub of ice for 40 sec"

And there goes the credibility of this entire article. :-\

This is pretty weak journalism. Tell us something tangible about heroes instead of just using headlines to shock us into looking at your ads.

Talendria
Talendria

I think we all want to transcend our biology.  We want to be more than the flawed creation that grows, decays, and dies.  And I think that's why most people will behave heroically given the right opportunity.  Not everyone has the skill set to leap in front of a bullet, but there are many other ways to be a hero.

t1oracle
t1oracle

Leaping in front of a bullet is not a skill set, -anyone can do that- and risking your life to protect your genetic line isn't transcending biology.

It is transcending the notion of self preservation, but that is all.

What makes a hero is the willingness to do what it takes to protect that which is genuinely important, even when the personal costs of providing such protection is incredibly high. You don't have to die to be a hero although that can make it easier to identify you as one.

soljerblue
soljerblue

"Leaping in front of a bullet is not a skill set, -anyone can do that- and risking your life to protect your genetic line isn't transcending biology.It is transcending the notion of self preservation, but that is all."

Your reasoning may be sound as you intended it, but it's not clear as you write it. You seem to be saying that 'transcending the notion of self preservation' is an easy thing to do. I can assure you, it is not.

Is throwing yourself on a grenade, or going under fire to retrieve a wounded buddy, or going back into a crashed and burning aircraft to bring out a trapped crew member... simply 'transcending the notion of self preservation'? You describe heroism well in your last paragraph; at least what I believe true heroism to be. So I was merely asking why, in that preceding sentence, you make it sound like something simple. It is anything but.

soljerblue
soljerblue

You make 'transcending the notion of self preservation' sound like rolling out of bed in the morning.  Then you go on to write a paragraph that torpedoes that whole argument.  Duh!

t1oracle
t1oracle

You are reading things that aren't there.

Talendria
Talendria

You honestly think anyone can leap in front of a bullet? That's absurd. Most people who haven't had combat training will react too slowly or be paralyzed with fear and confusion.

Sardonic_Soul
Sardonic_Soul

One cannot leap in front of a bullet once the bullet has been fired, no.  But you can leap between a killer with a gun and his victim, KNOWING you are likely to take a bullet.  One can leap on a hand grenade before it goes off too.   I suspect these people would be hard to include in Time's "Study."  So they don't count.

t1oracle
t1oracle

False. Most people have no idea what they will do in that situation including those with combat training.  I would know this because I have combat training and I served in Iraq.  Regardless, when the adrenaline takes over even the most humble of individuals can become heroes. You will not know until it happens.

Whatnow05
Whatnow05

“Bravery never goes out of fashion”

Start Loving
Start Loving

My God, the ineptitude of such studies is beyond tragic - the color blind studying those that see color; those without the ability to taste, evaluating those that can; those that have no experience of Selfless Love, Agape, Universal Loving, Solidarity, Brotherhood. Respect... judging the 1 in a million that know that 'Life' is only to be found in these.  Madness.  This article is worthy of poor, twisted Sigmund.  Utter garbage.

Kim Hyttel
Kim Hyttel

Science is blind for the love. Science is developed to exclude the love and put the logic in control. Therefore heroism is a mystery. It has no logical eksplanation. The first rule in logic thinking, is to understand its limits, but everyday the science is violating that principle.

soljerblue
soljerblue

Best post here.  Well said, Sir.  Well and truly said!