We’re often regaled with uplifting tales of have-a-go heroes or inspiring souls who have risked their own lives to save those of others they have never even met. While we can’t possibly predict how we’d react in an emergency, hopefully we’d instinctively put ourselves in harm’s way in order to help or save a loved one but thankfully, few of us will ever be tested in such circumstances. Some, of course, such as the military and emergency services, do so on a regular basis.
Three days before Christmas, a group of Somali Islamist militants opened fire on a bus in Kenya, killing a couple of passengers. Upon boarding, the gunmen ordered the Muslim occupants to move from the Christian ones, but they refused. “We even gave some non-Muslims our religious attire to wear so that they would not be easily identified,” Abdi Mohamud Abdi told Reuters. “We stuck together tightly. The militant threatened to shoot us but we still refused and protected our brothers and sisters. Finally they gave up and left but warned that they would be back.” In 2014 Time magazine named the world’s Ebola medics as their prestigious ‘Person of the Year’, stating “the rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand up and fight.”
“We have biological potentials for caring about others’ welfare, as well as turning against others,” writes Professor of Psychology Emeritus Ervin Staub for the Huffington Post. “Already a day or two after birth infants show a primitive form of empathy; when they hear crying by another infant they begin to cry, but not when they hear a noise of the same intensity.” The following years, he continues are crucial in our development of empathy, with parents constantly pointing out the consequences of their children’s behaviour being more likely to raise kinder kids. Staub to goes on: “Children raised with love and affection, and guided by positive values that stress caring for other people, are likely to develop positive feelings for and inclinations toward human beings.” The theory is backed by a study by the Carnegie Hero Foundation – which celebrates those who have risked their lives to save others – which found that those who carried out death-defying heroic acts are more likely to report that they were raised by parents who expected them to help their fellow man.
“The rest of the world can sleep at night because a group of men and women are willing to stand up and fight.”
Studies by David Rand of Yale University found that the less time we have to think about our reactions to dire situations, the more likely we are to act altruistically.
Rand says that our brains have two modes: fast- and slow-thinking. The latter is concerned with analysing situations and making logical decisions while the former is formed through habit, an auto-pilot producing split-second reactions. He argues that though heroism may often appear instinctual, it’s likely the result of years of considered selfless acts that have become so habitual they have evolved from slow, thought-out reactions to automatic ones. “If you get into the habit of being co-operative, that becomes the default,” he tells the BBC, “and it will mean that you are more likely to act that way in other contexts. You cultivate the habits of virtue.”
Humans don’t have the monopoly on heroic deeds however, history is awash with tales of brave beasts too. Here in New Zealand, over a decade ago, a group of dolphins formed a protective circle around a group of lifeguards off Ocean Beach near Whangarei to fend off a lurking a great white shark and in her book Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist, Maddalena Bearzi tells of how a group of the mammals broke away from a feeding session to save a suicidal girl in the waters of California. Gorillas have been known to guard children who have fallen into their zoo enclosures and a simple Google search of ‘dogs saving humans’ yields a stupendous number of results. “We may be underestimating the extent of rescue behaviour in the wild,” writes Dr Elise Nowbahari of the University of Paris in a study of such events. Examples cited include altruistic monkeys facing off assailants to protect the vulnerable, fruit bats aiding each other in labour and ants freeing their friends from traps.