People who risk their lives to save strangers do so without deliberation, according to a Yale-led analysis of statements from more than 50 recognized civilian heroes published online 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,” said David Rand, a Yale psychologist who authored the study with Ziv G. Epstein of Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. “Our analyses show that overwhelmingly, extreme altruists report acting first and thinking later.”
Rand, who studies human cooperation, recruited hundreds of participants to read 51 statements made by individuals who have received the Carnegie Hero Medal, given to civilians who risk their lives to save strangers. Participants analyzed those statements for evidence of whether they acted intuitively or with deliberation. An analysis of text by computer algorithm did the same.
“What you don’t find in the statements is people who say, ‘I thought it over and I decided it was the right thing to do,’” Rand said.
Instead, most responded like Christine Marty, a 21-year old college student who rescued a 69-year old trapped in a car during a flashflood.
“I’m thankful I was able to act and not think about it,” Marty said in a statement.
The findings are consistent with Rand’s previous studies of cooperation in “economic games,” where participants choose whether or not to share resources. In these studies, subjects forced to think carefully tend to be selfish while those using intuition are more likely to be cooperative.
Rand cautions that intuitive responses are not necessarily genetically hard-coded. He believes people learn that helping others is often in their own long-term self-interest and develop intuitive habits of cooperation, rather than possessing an innate instinct preserved by evolution.
“The optimal evolutionary outcome is to be able to learn, adapting to whether you were born into a situation where it is typically good to cooperate or to be selfish,’’ he said.
Notes about this Psychology research
Contact: Bill Hathaway – Yale Source:Yale press release Image Source: The imageis adapted from the Yale press release Original Research: Full open access research for “Risking Your Life without a Second Thought: Intuitive Decision-Making and Extreme Altruism” by David G. Rand and Ziv G. Epstein in PLOS ONE. Published online October 15 2014 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0109687
Open Access Neuroscience Abstract
Risking Your Life without a Second Thought: Intuitive Decision-Making and Extreme Altruism
When faced with the chance to help someone in mortal danger, what is our first response? Do we leap into action, only later considering the risks to ourselves? Or must instinctive self-preservation be overcome by will-power in order to act? We investigate this question by examining the testimony of Carnegie Hero Medal Recipients (CHMRs), extreme altruists who risked their lives to save others. We collected published interviews with CHMRs where they described their decisions to help. We then had participants rate the intuitiveness versus deliberativeness of the decision-making process described in each CHMR statement. The statements were judged to be overwhelmingly dominated by intuition; to be significantly more intuitive than a set of control statements describing deliberative decision-making; and to not differ significantly from a set of intuitive control statements. This remained true when restricting to scenarios in which the CHMRs had sufficient time to reflect before acting if they had so chosen. Text-analysis software found similar results. These findings suggest that high-stakes extreme altruism may be largely motivated by automatic, intuitive processes.
“Risking Your Life without a Second Thought: Intuitive Decision-Making and Extreme Altruism” by David G. Rand and Ziv G. Epstein in PLOS ONE, October 15 2014 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0109687