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How to Be a Hero

Tuesday, January 09, 2018 - 06:09 PM

What are people thinking when they risk their lives for someone else? Are they making complicated calculations of risk or diving in without a second thought? Is heroism an act of sympathy or empathy?  

A few years ago, we spoke with Walter F. Rutkowski about how the Carnegie Hero Fund selects its heroes, an honor the fund bestows upon ordinary people who have done extraordinary acts.

When some of these heroes were asked what they were thinking when they leapt into action, they replied: they didn’t think about it, they just went in.

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky says there is a certain kind of empathy that leads to action. But feeling the pain of another person deeply is not necessarily what makes a hero.  

Our original episode was reported and produced by Lynn Levy and Tim Howard. This update was produced by Amanda Aronczyk.

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Walter F. Rutkowski and Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Produced by:

Amanda Aronczyk, Tim Howard and Lynn Levy


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Comments [21]


I would LOVE for there to be a podcast dedicated entirely to all the thousands of recipients of this award! Would be wonderful to hear all the stories and hear them interviewed in the same way you did for these three.

Feb. 11 2018 04:16 PM
Eliezer from Israel

Great and moving chapter.
Can you give links to the research that shows that "too much" physical empathy leads to less likelihood of being a hero?

Feb. 08 2018 02:17 AM
Nancy Ferguson from Santa barbara

Here's another possibility to consider: Imagine you are an observer in any of the situations (the bull, the burning car, the train). In an instant you know you have only two choices - either try to prevent the horror or stand there and watch it unfold. The brain can quickly calculate just how the horror is going to unfold. I think some people can't bear the idea of watching it unfold, so spring into action because watching the horror unfold is clearly going to be unbearable.

Feb. 03 2018 09:48 PM
Cole Stuckey from Breckenridge CO

It was pretty awesome to know that the world is a better place than it is potrayed on social media and T.V.

Jan. 30 2018 07:33 PM
Kyle from Charlotte

The concepts presented here don't serve you well if you take them as all-encompassing absolutes. That would not be possible to cover. Indeed, instincts come into play, heroism takes many forms, and all are capable of altruism. But the value of instincts in any given situation varies, heroism takes on an specific image more often than not because of some societal constructs, and altruistic acts may be more neuro-cognitively accessible to those who have experienced the practice of altruism more often in their lifetime. Empathy which stretches across the globe is entirely possible and the is evidence of it happening every week.

I didn't take the explanation that Dr. Sapolsky gave as rote fact, but rather insight. We have to take all of this and see how it can be helpful in our own lives, the lives we know most intimately and specifically if we've taken the time to really know ourselves. Else it would be the same broken logic of:

1) "I see you have a problem."
2) "I heard about and tried this solution to the same problem."
3) "The problem was solved for me."
4) "Do this same thing and the problem will be solved for you."

There is deep hubris there. However, remove step 4 and you are just fine. It is the charge of the other person to either try your solution by their own will, or recognize it and move along.

So I found this episode really thought-provoking. Especially the quick, but important point about detachment and it's implicit connection to action, empathy, and love. Very direct and well put.

Jan. 29 2018 11:09 AM
Ngoc from San Diego

So from this professor's analysis, only people with good parents and were raised morally are capable of altruism. Hmmm.

Jan. 22 2018 05:22 PM
Jesse from Connecticut

I have not heard presented the idea that “instinct” is likely the catalyst or main reason for the type of heroic actions in this episode. I mean animal instinct. It is in our species interest to save others in times of crisis and immediate physical danger. It is, in all likelihood, part of our DNA and that is why we don’t/rarely think before these actions. In times of crisis humans are built to save our babies, or our family members. I just don’t think that this instinct distinguishes between family members and strangers in fast paced moments of danger.

We used to live in small tribes and, relatively speaking, saving anyone you saw was likely going to increase the chance that your bloodline would continue. It’s only in the modern world that we encounter so many “complete strangers”.

Also, I think there is a massive leap in believing that the heavily practiced physical repetition of playing piano, or tennis, etc is analogous to the unique, once in a lifetime, moment of rescuing somebody from danger. While both activities are comparably thoughtless, I see few other similarities.

Jan. 22 2018 11:28 AM
Taylor Clarke

This episode didn't sit well with me, sadly.

Doesn't heroism have many definitions? I'm okay with heroism being described in one particular way for the purpose of an award, but if we are talking about heroes in general and their traits, does heroism just belong to physical actions? What about abstract heroism, like kindness and compassion? Let's not degrade empathy just because empathy is not conducive to quick action.

Heroism happens in many different ways, sometimes it is a concrete action like saving people from a burning car, where the thing you are putting in danger is also concrete, your own physical well being. Sometimes heroism is abstract, like standing up for someone, and it's perhaps your reputation and friendships which are on the line.

Our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. Acting on a feeling, leaping without looking can be an incredible strength in certain situations and in certain fields. People with these strengths often end up as athletes, emergency responders, performers, doctors, military etc. But this strength can be a weakness when it comes to thinking out the consequences of an action in the long term.

So, my initial reaction to the Prof talking was, "Well, duh." Empathy as a cognitive process is about perceiving. Empathy has to do with theory of mind, the ability to perspective shift, and imagine how people must be feeling. That is a long process, a thoughtful one. It's nothing to do with judgement or quick acting, and that is what makes empathy powerful because empathetic people think things out from many different angles to understand a situation, instead of on impulse.

Take a look at the work of Dr Dario Nardi. He studies how brains are wired and how those wirings translate into cognitive behaviors. The wiring for people with high metaphysical intelligence, often also empathetic, looks entirely different than people who have high kinesthetic intelligence. And these wirings are not learned but are inherent, we are born with them. This is why two siblings can have wildly different characters--personality is part nurture, true, but, also part nature. It's a bit of both.

I would describe myself as an empathetic person and I absolutley relate to the inability to act quickly in the moment, largely because I overthink everything. But overthinking everything, while making me bad at spur of the moment decisions, has given me strengths in other areas. As a child I used to stand up for bullied kids because I could feel how they must be feeling, and I devote quite a lot of energy to thinking about other peoples experience and mulling over what must be going on in their minds. I've never saved a person physically, I am too slow, clumsy and cowardly when it comes to responding to my sensory environment. But I'd like to think there are a couple of people I have helped through depression, helped build their self confidence, and saw that they were struggling when no one else noticed.

Jan. 19 2018 08:16 PM
Derek Dogan

This is one of the better retreads. It was a good episode initially, and I didn't mind revisiting it. Pretty much everything has been a repeat, though - in one form or another - for a number of months now, since early November. I think the last "full" original episode (in the "archive" section) turned up last summer. I love Radiolab, and I'll keep checking in for the foreseeable future, but it would be nice to see some wholly original content from time to time.

I load the page, and my mood turns up a little bit when I see a new post. Then I click on it. "Oh, okay, another one of those." Quit playing with my heart, Radiolab!

Over the past year, I feel like there's also been a trend away from the science-oriented nature of the show (or at least, what science appears is "softer"). Some of it is quite interesting - like the Father K episode - but I think it bears mentioning.

As a side note, I feel like keeping the Anonymous/"troll" episode up (which was actually pretty entertaining) shows more backbone than removing it. The "we don't want to encourage them" line - it's a personal opinion, but I've always hated that one; it's always felt a little thin. That's your prerogative, of course; it doesn't bear on the show, just my own thoughts. I always hate watching someone take the hatchet to good work on some pretext.

Anyway, I know I don't have the full story - for any of it - you have your reasons, and I'll continue to recommend the show to anyone who asks (though I might advise them to start with an earlier season). All else aside, I'm glad you're still around, doing what you love; I still look forward to the next episode.

Jan. 18 2018 03:32 AM
Rob from Brookfield, WI

I could not help thinking of my experience watching my two children swept out to sea in Maui, by a rip-current, as I stood helplessly on shore. For a brief moment I considered diving in after them, but thought, "You know you always hear stories of how the guy going in dies. I will serve no one by diving in. I'm 45, overweight and can't swim well. Both boys have flotation. If I die my wife will not only lose two kids, but a father."

So I stood helplessly in the water looking to where I last saw them flailing, out of reach of my shouts, "Get on the boogie board!" I felt sicker than I ever have.

When both boys re-appeared 2 minutes later -- as the rip-current swirled back into the cove -- body-surfing behind their boards, I thanked "good sense" that I didn't try to be heroic, and we all left alive with a good story.

It's the flip-side of heroism, obscured because we praise the hits and ignore the misses of those who act decisively. (And, in fairness, I acted decisively: The same "intuition" that causes some to dive in, told me it was better sense to NOT.)

Jan. 15 2018 05:03 PM
Alex from Philadelphia

The allegory of the pianist is spot on, but seems a little misplaced in the dissection of heroic action. It helps to illustrate that the learning cycle isn't something that impacts our success on a macro scale, but it is absolute in the formation of skills and techniques that impact our 'big-picture' impact on the world.

For example; one doesn't learn a piece of music by playing it beginning to end over and over, taking the good parts with the bad. One learns a piece by breaking it down into smaller chunks. Over time, one becomes a master of their instrument by learning the simple but immutable axioms of that instrument in context.

So to extrapolate, something like 'speed' or 'accuracy' may be a desirable trait of a musician, but those traits are developed over time and do not, alone, make a musician. To bring it back to the topic at hand, heroic action requires one to look past the internal dialog that influences decision making. For the musicians in the audience, this is akin to trying to sight-read a piece for the first time as you step in front of an audience. In my experience, the adrenaline in this situation shuts off all empathy; the audience disappears the other players fade into uniformity and you just play. The traits/skills help, but you either make it or you don't.

Jan. 15 2018 03:46 PM
Dee from Chattanooga TN

I don't think my morals played any part in saving some kids when I was about 17. It was a large group and suddenly I saw what others did not see. I saw in advance what could happen. I was possibly the only one who could fast forwarded and knew I alone COULD do something. I also believed deeply I would not be harmed. I was not a hero. I hated the way I was treated. I was some way appointed to see, had knowledge to do, and positioned to carry it off! That's all. I am glad the 40 or so children and six or so teachers were not harmed! End of story

Jan. 14 2018 05:47 PM
Nancy Mosk from Petaluma

What amazing stories! In reflecting on the spontaneous leap into action without the paralysis of thought, and then the moment when the pianist realizes he has already run his fingers past the trill that was such a stumbling block, I began to wonder about creativity - the spark, the eureka moment, the doing-without-thinking... Has Robert Sapolsky explored this?

Jan. 14 2018 10:44 AM
Linda from Amsterdam

This made me think of an article I read about Paul Bloom, who wrote a book entitled "Against Empathy". Basically, he is positing that the actual feeling of empathy is useless in the fight against global injustice, because we only feel it for the people near and dear to us, and we are simply unable to feel the same amount of pain for people on the other side of the planet. However, the rational compassion he advocates would enable us to reason our way to a better society, a better world, without relying on pesky feelings.
The first time I read it I strongly disagreed and felt kind of shocked that one would advocate for "cold" rationality as opposed to "human" feeling, but I think I get it now. Maybe this would be an interesting person for you guys to talk to.

Jan. 13 2018 07:30 PM
Michael from Chicago

The topic was initially about why some people act in a heroic manner and others (most?) do not. Eventually, with the introduction of the neural scientist, it drifts into a question of morality, at least implicitly. The problem becomes then that dangerous heroic actions stand for moral actions in general. Also, implicit was the idea that those who act spontaneously in a heroic manner do so because of their virtuous training. But the question is never raised as to why they are so trained and why those actions are considered virtues. The post about Aristotle is correct in that Aristotle did say that virtue (excellence of proper function) is learned through habituation. But the idea that this act or that act is a virtue is predetermined by society. Hence, it is preexistent.

Jan. 13 2018 01:10 PM
Paul Riccio from Connecticut

I would also love to know the music at the end of this episode. Sounds like exceptional and creative arranging.

Jan. 13 2018 12:32 PM
Patrick from Pasadena

In other words, Aristotle and Aquinas had it right all along. Virtuous action flows not from intellection, but properly formed habit.

Jan. 12 2018 11:32 PM
Sofia from Norway

Who made the music and where can i listen to the soundtrack? Especially the last song i want to have on repeat! Thanks for another good show!

Jan. 12 2018 07:46 AM
Marc Peterson from Denver, CO

Similarly to Buddhism, I think the training I had helped me go into automatic when I saved a kid in a river. I have trained for years in Ki Aikido. In this art, we train to act properly without too much thought and from a relaxed and centered place.Thus, when it was time to act, I did so.

Jan. 10 2018 10:03 PM
Moshe Haven to rest until the resurrection. from Potomac, MD

In Judaism we learn that every challenge we are presented is a set up from G-d, and that we also have the tools to deal with it. As being something from G-d we also are taught to accept it as something good and right since to think otherwise is to insult G-d. Of course accepting everth7ng like that is one of more difficult challenges. As such, a person of strong faith would approach danger confidently.

Jan. 10 2018 05:32 PM
Maria from New York

Tibetan Buddhism offers specific technologies designed to train in compassion. There are different meditation techniques that help to develop those abilities so that they come automatic. Western neuroscience is catching up and “seeing” the effects of these practices in the brain, but Buddhist mind science is more advanced.
Thanks for such an interesting episode! I’m in awe with those heros!

Jan. 09 2018 10:11 PM

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