What drives the heroes
Recently, three young American men and a British businessman thwarted a gunman’s attack on a French passenger train, acting within seconds and at enormous personal risk. When interviewed afterward, they stressed the unthinking nature of their actions. “It was just gut instinct,” said one, in a characteristic remark. “It wasn’t really a conscious decision.”
This turns out to be typical of heroes. Last year, one of us, Professor Rand, together with his colleague Ziv Epstein, conducted an analysis of recipients of the Carnegie Medal for heroism, which is awarded to those who risk their lives for others. After collecting interviews given by 51 recipients and evaluating the transcripts, we found that the heroes overwhelming described their actions as fast and intuitive, and virtually never as carefully reasoned.
This was true even in cases where the heroes had sufficient time to stop and think. Christine Marty, a college student who rescued a 69-year-old woman trapped in a car during a flash flood, said she was grateful that she didn’t take the time to reflect: “I’m thankful I was able to act and not think about it.” We found almost no examples of heroes whose first impulse was for self-preservation but who overcame that impulse with a conscious, rational decision to help.
It is striking that our brute instincts, rather than our celebrated higher cognitive faculties, are what lead to such moral acts. But why would anyone ever develop such potentially fatal instincts?
One possible explanation is that in most everyday situations, helping others pays off in the long run. You buy lunch for a friend or pitch in to help a colleague meet a tight deadline, and you find yourself repaid in kind, or even more, down the road. So it’s beneficial to develop a reflex to help — especially because the cost to you is usually quite small.
It is also possible that there is a benefit to developing a reputation as someone who helps without thinking: You are treated as more trustworthy, precisely because you won’t deliberate your way out of helping when doing so entails considerable personal risk. For heroic instincts to arise this way, the benefits must ultimately outweigh the costs — including the risk of the very rare but very dangerous situation (e.g., subduing a gunman).
Do they in fact outweigh the costs? To find out, let’s consider a game theory model called the “envelope game,” introduced last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by one of us, Mr. Yoeli, and two colleagues.
In the game, there are two players who interact repeatedly. In each interaction, Player 1 has the opportunity to help Player 2. Helping Player 2 always carries some cost for Player 1. While that cost is usually small, sometimes it turns out to be enormous.
What makes the game interesting is that before Player 1 decides whether to help, he has the option of opening a sealed envelope containing a description of the cost to him of helping. Player 2, meanwhile, observes not only whether Player 1 decides to help, but also whether Player 1 opens the envelope — that is, does he think through the risk before deciding to help? Or does he just help without thinking? Then Player 2 decides whether to continue the relationship (i.e., to trust Player 1) or end it.
In what circumstances will Player 2 choose to interact with Player 1 only if Player 1 doesn’t look? And in what circumstances will Player 1 find it worthwhile to cultivate the trust of Player 2 by not looking, even though this risks incurring a huge cost?
The model shows that the tendency to help without looking wins out when: (1) the cost of helping is typically small (so that the benefit to Player 1 of Player 2’s continuing the relationship makes helping worthwhile on average), but is sometimes so big that if Player 1 were to look at this cost he would certainly not help; (2) if Player 1 doesn’t help, this is really harmful to Player 2; and (3) the long-term relationship is valuable to Player 1.
When such conditions are met, as they often are in real-life relationships, instinctive helping beats stopping to think.
Much has been made of the military training of two of the Americans on the French train, and the envelope game helps to explain why. While many heroes have no military or other formal training, a sizable proportion do. The military hones soldiers’ cooperative instincts in an environment that has all of the required characteristics: Soldiers occasionally find themselves helping others at enormous personal risk; and they live, train and work together for relatively long periods, during which they have plenty of opportunities to observe whether a peer helps others without thinking.
Every day, decent folk do good. But as the recent heroics in France remind us, heroes don’t just do good — they do good instinctively.