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.

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When you think about Aurora or Boston, most of the danger seems to have happened in the heat of the moment. But during something like 9/11, you had danger both during the attack and afterwards during the search and rescue mission. Are there types of people who are more likely to help during one phase or another?

It's hard to say for sure. People who have received rescue training might be more likely to help in heat of the moment, but those who haven't gotten this kind of training might be more inclined to help later on by donating to relief fund or helping later after the fact. Both groups are important, and the impulse is there to help in both. We need first responders, but we also need people helping to reorient ourselves.

One of the purposes of your book is to explore whether anyone can be a hero or if some people are hard wired that way—after researching it, which do you think it is?

I lean more on the side of anyone can learn to do it if they put their minds to it. To be a big hero you need a big opportunity. If you're not in the middle of a situation like Boston, you might not have the opportunity to be one of these front page of the newspaper type of heroes, but if you keep your eyes open, there are plenty of opportunities to help people on a daily basis. You can attune yourself to what people around you need and develop a mindset where you're focused on others, so you might be more likely to step up if you get into a big situation.

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In researching your book, you talked to many people who nearly died helping others. Were there any stories that particularly stood out to you?

It's hard to pick one because I talked to so many amazing people. The one thing that struck me is the people who intervene heroically don't consider themselves to be heroes. It's more like they believed they're doing their human duty, doing what has to be done. I talk about Dave Hartsock, a skydiving instructor who used his own body to break the fall of his student when their parachute failed. He ended up paralyzed, and he kept telling me how he was not a hero, how he couldn't imagine doing anything differently. He was responsible for his students' welfare and he took that seriously.

If you talked to the Boston heroes, they'd tell you something similar. They'd say they value others and see themselves as responsible for helping them.

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