Risking One’s Life To Save Others Is Driven By Selfish Causes; Heroes Risk Their Lives Without A Second Thought – Study Finds

Yale University's David Rand and his colleagues reveal that risking one's life for strangers is a result of 'Acting First and Thinking Later'. In other words, people don't deliberately risk their own lives to save a stranger's life. This conclusion comes from an analysis the team conducted of more than 50 recognized civilian heroes.

Yale University’s David Rand and his colleagues reveal that risking one’s life for strangers is a result of ‘Acting First and Thinking Later’. In other words, people don’t deliberately risk their own lives to save a stranger’s life. This conclusion comes from an analysis the team conducted of more than 50 recognized civilian heroes.

The team recruited hundreds of participants to rate their 51 statements made during their published interviews by the recipients of the Carnegie Hero Medal. An honor that Is given to civilians who risk their lives to save strangers.

Using participant’s own analysis as well as computer text analysis algorithm, researchers analyzed those statements in the interviews. The objective of this experiment was to look for the evidence of whether the medal winners describe their own acts as deliberate or intuitive.

The statements were judged to be intuitive by both participants and text analysis even in situations where the lifesaver would have enough time to deliberate before acting. Participants also rated the medal’s winners’ testimonies as similar to sample “control” intuitive statements and rated them more intuitive than sample deliberate statements.

The results suggest that extreme altruism maybe largely motivated by automatic, intuitive processes. Although it is not clear if intuitive responses are genetically hard-coded, but its very unlikely that they are.

Dr. Rand believes people learn that helping others is typically in their own long-term self interest. Thus, intuitive habits like this develop as habits of cooperation rather than an innate cooperative instinct that was preserved in social humans’ nature during the course of evolution.

“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. Our analyses show that overwhelmingly, extreme altruists report acting first and thinking later,” said David Rand.


  1. Hmm whilst I don’t necessarily disagree with how the reactions work I think calling it selfish has more to do with interviewer and interviewee motives/interpretation. Had this been conducted by people from places who have a different view of suicide and honour the overall title/gist may have been different. Also by choosing medalists it discounts all the people who hate drama and would prefer dangerous things don’t happen i.e. not wanting the ‘chance’ to ‘prove themselves’, have glory or look like a hero etc but at the time had to do what they had to do. Some people help and never get acknowledged or rewarded and many of them don’t want to be.

  2. I agree, we should not take that “honor and happiness” from our “selfish heroes”. And, we know that most people are not this “selfish”…

  3. I think upbringing and who is the recipent of the help, are some of the factors involved. Though all may still boils down to selfish reasons. For example, most will not hesitate to help a child because of the innate instinct to save the young for propagation of human species.

  4. This all sounds like yet another high-brow scientific study and report to justify grant money, the report alone destined to clearly receive great interest with the hoped for result to assuage the known to be furrowed brows of those bodies providing the money in the first place. All human beings “think” and especially before performing any action, and if not, then they are either mentally defective or the wife.

    The situation we face is not that thought is lacking in altruistic actions, it is simply that the ‘right’ thought is often lacking.

    If one of the great unwashed (untrained) happens to be sitting next to a child, a stranger, during a “traumatic” event, it would be most reasonable ‘unwashed’s’ response to immediately THINK, (albeit poorly), and altruistically attempt to protect the child first, thus as this study finds – yet as nearly all of you will be aware, when you travel on an airline you are told during emergency procedures to protect yourself first and then protect the child (put your oxygen mask on first and then put the child’s on); you are given training and the training basically infers into your unwashed brain that for you to protect the child you must first make yourself strong enough (have oxygen) so that you can fight the struggles of that little child who will not care for having a smelly plastic object slapped over ‘its’ mouth / face. That training is given because airlines found that the ‘altruistic THINKING action’ was “protect myself first in order to protect the child,” which of course is wrong.

    The study might have been of far better value had it looked deeper into not just 50 altruistic heroically performed actions that had a happy ending but looked at the hundreds (thousands?) of altruistically performed rescues that went wrong.

    Had the study done that we might have got some far better and more grant justified conclusions – the executive summary might then have concluded that the result of altruistically acting in dangerous situations without knowing what you are doing will inevitably cause you, and those others / professionals who are then sent in to rescue you, at even greater risk and very often death.

    I think this Yale study is a complete waste of time and money and merely serves as a justifier to the grant money that Mr. / Dr. / Professor David Rand receives – or to put it more euphemistically, I think it’s a load of bollox!

    Just an opinion of course and as guaranteed under the US 1st amendment !!


      That training is given because airlines found that the ‘altruistic THINKING action’ was “protect myself first in order to protect the child,” which of course is wrong.

      That training is given because airlines found that the ‘altruistic THINKING action’ was “protect THE CHILD first AND THEN PROTECT MYSELF,” which of course is wrong – (SINCE IF WE WERE TO FACE A STRUGGLE WITH THE CHILD WHEN WE DID NOT HAVE A SUPPLY OF OXYGEN, WE MIGHT PASS OUT AND THEN NO HELP CAN BE GIVEN TO THE WRIGGLING AND NOW BLUE CHILD!) .

  5. Acting first and thinking later I believe is the reaction after one has a trauma.(i.e. Audy Murphy, after seeing his buddies slaughtered, jumped on a tank shooting.) Those that train to actually go in and help people – that’s another story – that’s the story heroes are made of.

    1. That Audie Murphy reacted very heroically is unquestionable – however, he reacted to the traumatic event with solid training, experience of warfare, a mentality that was almost certainly A1 rated and he acted with very good reason – despite the fact that others of similar training and experience might not have stepped up to the plate as he did.

      The point is, he did not act without thought – he acted altruistically, heroically and WITH thought.

      Even if you question someone who has acted in a manner where in retrospect that person says something like, “I can’t remember doing that,” does NOT therefore mean he acted without thought.

      I hate some of these bloody scientists who throw out this garbage because they know full well that the vast majority will accept the findings ~ “he’s a scientist, he must know, mustn’t he” ~ bollox I say.

      By the way, I like your site – very interesting – cheers, ‘ter

  6. And it finally opens for me without the characters. Lol. I think people in general, observe someone in danger and react on instinct. There are instances where some will do it for something in return, but as a whole, it is one of many things, which binds humanity.

  7. What we believe isn’t always what is true. Otherwise we’d still believe the Earth was flat. “…people learn that helping others is typically in their own long-term self interest” seems to be a flat-Earth leap of assumptions.

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