What Makes a Hero?

The surprising science of selflessness

Heroes Who Break the Mold

By dwelling on rescuers' imperfections, we overshadow their selfless deeds.

Charles Ramsey could hardly have predicted the online juggernaut he set into motion last week when he gave a Cleveland TV station an off-the-cuff interview. “I barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot and listen to salsa music,” he said after helping rescue three women from captivity in his neighbor's house. “Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms.”

After Ramsey's no-holds-barred narration hit YouTube, he became an Internet sensation. His face and voice were everywhere, plastered on news sites, reposted on Facebook, and spliced into other YouTube videos. Still, it wasn't long before Internet sleuths dug up and dissected his past domestic violence arrests. “[His] dramatic and shocking rescue,” one observer wrote, “turned into a witch hunt to disparage his character.” Similarly, after the Boston Marathon bombings, multiple news sources revealed that Tyler Dodd, who'd helped 20-year-old Victoria McGrath at the scene, had lied to her about his identity. Though he'd claimed to be an Afghanistan combat vet to ease her fears, he'd never actually been in the armed services.

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The focus on rescuers' shortfalls is understandable, given today's sensationalized media environment. But it detracts from the heart of the matter: People like Charles Ramsey and Tyler Dodd are true heroes. They put their own lives on the line to help someone else with no expectation of reward, and their transcendent acts deserve to be celebrated. Real-life heroes don't fit some airy-fairy heroic archetype, and they don't lead spotless or uncomplicated lives. To some people, this can come as a disappointment—think of the Internet hoopla surrounding Martin Luther King's philandering, Gandhi's racist statements about South African blacks, and Mother Teresa's personal crisis of faith.

But the revelation that heroes are ordinary people, subject to the same doubts and limitations and temptations as the rest of us, should serve as an encouragement. If we accept that someone with shortcomings is still fully capable of behaving heroically, then we know that despite our personal failings, we, too, may be capable of ascending to the heights of heroism when the situation calls for it. Tyler Dodd might have fudged the truth about his background when he rescued Victoria McGrath, but in her eyes, he was still a hero. In the very moment when she felt most unmoored, he offered her safety and security the best way he knew how, and that's what she'll always remember. “I don’t mind that he lied to me,” McGrath said after she learned Dodd's true identity, according to MSNBC. “I would have told him to do it again a second time. It saved my life.”

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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