What Makes a Hero?

The surprising science of selflessness

The Youngest Heroes

What compels children like Tyler Doohan to give their lives for others?

Countless news outlets have covered the story of Tyler Doohan, 9, who awoke when flames swept through his family's trailer last month in Penfield, NY. Once Tyler realized what was happening, he was able to wake six of his family members and guide them to safety. But when he re-entered the trailer to try to save his sleeping grandfather, he died in the fire, which officials believe started because of electrical problems. No smoke detector was installed in the trailer, and the family had previously been warned that the home was overcrowded.

After the world learned of Tyler's death, a web site on Youcaring.com raised over $60,000 to cover his funeral expenses. Area firefighters crowded the aisles at his memorial service, symbolically adopting the boy into their ranks. “In bravely and selflessly giving his own life,” said Tyler's school superintendent, Richard Stutzman Jr., “he was able to save the lives of six others — and he truly is a hero.”

What happened to Tyler underscores the enormous consequences that can accompany heroic action. For rescuers in the midst of danger, putting everything on the line is much more than a figure of speech. (Just ask Texas skydiver Dave Hartsock, who ended up paralyzed trying to save his student, first-time jumper Shirley Dygert.) And if the heroic actors are children, the stakes are unusually complex. When those who attempt a heroic rescue are not yet able to vote or drive, can they do it with full knowledge of what's at stake for them and for the people they aim to save? Still, while most children do not yet possess adult capabilities or judgments, that's no excuse to trivialize their heroic contributions—especially since, in some ways, their age makes their deeds all the more noteworthy.

Psychologist Phil Zimbardo, whose Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) teaches heroic-education classes for school-aged students, knows that nurturing children's heroic impulses is a delicate business. HIP encourages young heroes-in-training to develop “situational awareness”; instructors stress to kids that they need to take careful stock of what's happening around them before acting. While jumping into the fray—as Tyler did—may be necessary, alerting a bystander or calling 911 might suffice at other times. (As remarkable as Tyler's courage was, it's safe to say some parents hope their sons and daughters don't follow in his footsteps.)

What would motivate a child like Tyler to put others' safety ahead of his own? We can at least speculate; studies of real-life heroes reveal that altruistic family members and other important role models often inspire their actions. The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reports that Tyler's step-great-grandfather, Lewis Beach, was known for his generosity. The family's trailer was crowded in part because Beach had recently taken in several down-on-their-luck relatives, so it's possible Tyler looked to his grandpa for selfless inspiration.

But we'll never be able to ask Tyler himself what drove him to rush back into the flames—and this young rescuer is also a tragic symbol of lost possibility. Though he deserves enormous credit for his heroic efforts, it's impossible not to wonder what gifts an adult Tyler might have offered the world had the inferno been prevented.

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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