Why Do People Risk Their Lives To Help Others During Emergencies Such as the Boston Marathon Bombing?

A new book takes a look at the science of selflessness.


Time and time again, in the wake of tragedy, there are countless stories of selfless people who risk their lives to save others. During the Aurora, Colo. shooting, three men died using their bodies as human shields to protect others; during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 countless first responders lost their lives.

America was reminded just how much people are willing to help this week when two emergencies—the Boston Marathon bombing and the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas—caused bystanders, police officers and rescue workers to come to the aid of those injured in situations potentially dangerous to themselves.

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In a book coming out in August, What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness, reporter Elizabeth Svoboda attempts to figure out why people are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. Perhaps surprisingly, some people may be genetically hard-wired to help others, while some sociologists think a sense of selflessness can be instilled with practice. U.S. News talked to her about some of the theories about self sacrifice and what it means in the wake of the Boston bombings and the West, Texas disaster.

In doing your research for the book, did you find that there was a specific type of person who was willing to step forward in the heat of the moment during an emergency? Does it make a difference if someone is trained to be a first responder or not?

I think people who are trained to be first responders have an advantage—it's not an absolute that the people who intervene have training, but I think it makes a difference. There's a study that was published a few years back—the people who did intervene in these split-second situations were more likely to have undergone rescue training than members of a control group.

If you don't feel capable of helping, in a case such as Boston, if you don't know what you're going to do to provide aid, you might be less likely to intervene and more likely to hang back. This is something of a generalization of course, and there are always exceptions, but preparing yourself in that way does help.

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There's a theory called group selection—that humans might have evolved selfless traits not to help an individual to survive, but to sacrifice themselves for the good of the group. Can you tell us a little more about that?

It's something of a controversy in the scientific community. But some researchers believe we help others because groups where members are inclined to cooperate tend to do better from generation to generation than groups with infighting. You might indirectly improve your own genetic prospects by contributing to the wellbeing of the group.

There have also been studies that take a look at charity—when we do something selfless such as donate, the pleasure centers of our brain respond, correct?

That's true—some studies have found that when you do something selfless, such as give money to charity, the part of the brain that processes rewards light up on fMRI scans. In some sense, when you're giving to others you might feel like when you're getting a gift yourself or winning the lottery. Helping others gives us the feeling we're making a difference and makes us happy because we feel as if we have a purpose.

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There's also this idea of those who donate their time or money—versus the traditional definition of a hero, where someone puts their life on the line to help another person. Are these people likely to overlap in case of an emergency?

Some scientists believe that people who devote their time on a regular basis and do everyday good deeds might be well equipped to act heroically later. In the wake of the Boston attacks, I think a good example was Joe Andruzzi. He was formerly a lineman for the Patriots who started a cancer foundation. He's someone who has spent a lot of time flexing his altruistic muscles and someone who might be more likely to rush in—and that's what he did. [Ed note: Andruzzi carried an injured woman to safety on Monday].