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.
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.
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.
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