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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


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Comments [12]

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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