What Makes a Hero?

The surprising science of selflessness

Why Did the Boston Heroes Intervene?

What compels people to step in and help when it counts.

The Boston Marathon bombings, in which three people were killed and more than 200 injured, have shaken us to our collective core. But in the midst of all the chaos and death, some observers stepped up to help in heroic ways—running toward the blast sites to carry injured fellow citizens to safety, for instance, even though they didn't know if another bomb would go off in the vicinity. So why did these Boston heroes do what they did? Why did they rush into the fray when many others would have stepped back?

This question is difficult to answer adequately, since you never know exactly how you're going to react in such a high-stakes situation until it slaps you upside the face. That said, there are a few factors that may have predisposed the Boston heroes to take action. Specialized training is one; many physical heroes have medical or rescue background that prepares them to help in important ways. Vivek Shah, a marathoner who ran to the scene once the explosions happened, was an orthopedic surgeon, so he knew he'd be able to help people with a variety of injuries. North Carolina ER doctor Allan Panter, who'd been waiting on the sidelines for his wife to finish the race, quickly moved to help victims as well.

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In addition to feeling confident in their ability to help, heroes tend not to take an exclusionary approach to the world and others. According to a study by political scientist Kristen Monroe, one thing that distinguished World War II heroic rescuers from bystanders was their belief that they were connected to other people through common humanity. Often, heroes mention that they merely did the right thing, the decent, human thing, when they were in a position to do so—they don't see themselves as set apart or “better” than others. “Everybody’s talking to me,” Panter told the Charlotte Observer's Michael Gordon. “But I was no different than anybody else.” For heroes like these, interactions aren't so much about “self” and “other”; they're much more about, “You're not that different from me, because we share a bond as human beings.”

At times, such a high level of identification with others may have roots in past pain. Psychologist Ervin Staub's research shows that victims of certain kinds of suffering are more likely to reach out and help others afterward. There was one particular case in Boston where a man—later identified as Tyler Dodd—helped a woman named Victoria McGrath who'd received a shrapnel wound. To comfort McGrath and let her know things were going to be OK, he showed her his own scar.

As important as split-second on-the-scene heroes are, everyday generosity will also prove essential to helping Boston recover. If your thoughts often return to what happened there, see what you can do to help. Contribute to a fund to help victims; connect with a friend who lives there and offer some solace. We can't all be first responders, but we can all find ways to demonstrate our caring and human decency.

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer living in San Jose, CA. Her first book, What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, comes out in September.

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