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Heroism Seems to Be a Spontaneous Act

Study looked at more than 50 civilians who saved strangers, found they rescued without deliberation

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 15, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- People who risk their lives to rescue others appear to do so without giving it much thought, a new study finds.

It looked at more than 50 people awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal, given to civilians who put their lives in danger to save strangers.

Statements made by the heroes were analyzed and rated by hundreds of people, and also underwent computer analysis, according to the study published Oct. 15 in the journal PLOS ONE.

"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. Our analyses show that overwhelmingly, extreme altruists report acting first and thinking later," David Rand, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, said in a journal news release.

Even when they had plenty of time to think before acting, the heroes tended to spring into action without much deliberation, the researchers found.

The findings suggest that people who risk their lives to save strangers are largely driven by an automatic, intuitive response, the study authors said.

However, this is not necessarily something genetically hardwired into heroes, Rand said. People learn that helping others often benefits their own long-term self-interest and therefore develop spontaneous habits of cooperation, he explained.

More information

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has more about heroism.

SOURCE: PLOS ONE, news release, Oct. 15, 2014
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