How Real-Life Heroes Rise to the Occasion

Amidst the terror of this summer's mass shootings, heroes emerged to save lives.

Posted Aug 21, 2019

The recent mass shootings in El Paso, Tx., Dayton, Oh., and Gilroy, Ca.—all of which took place within an eight-day period—have plunged us into a national period of mourning and a much-needed discussion about gun control. Yet amidst the chaos, heartbreak, and soul-searching about the nation's future, stories of lifesaving heroic action have emerged, showing us what humans are capable of under the very worst of conditions.

As gunfire echoed around him, Dayton bartender Dane Thomas calmly escorted his customers to safety, and Dayton nurse Kayla Miller performed CPR on victims out in the open while covered in blood herself. In El Paso, U.S. Army serviceman Glendon Oakley whisked children out of harm's way as the gunman began firing.

Jose Alonso/ Unsplash
Source: Jose Alonso/ Unsplash

We honor heroes like Thomas, Miller, and Oakley for their unswerving commitment to helping others even when their own lives are at stake. As we ponder their bravery, it's hard not to wonder what we might do if we found ourselves in a similar situation. Why do some people come to victims' aid in a crisis, while others withdraw or stay frozen with terror? In recent years, researchers have started looking deeply into questions like this, and what they're learning suggests there's a seed of heroism in most people that can germinate if the conditions are right.

We tend to assume that heroes step in to help because they feel bad about other people's plight, but that's not always the case. In one recent study, when people felt sorry for someone else in trouble, they were actually less likely to help that person afterward. That suggests that empathizing with someone else is different from wanting to take action on their behalf—and that when we feel too much distress, we might disengage from a situation.

What does tip the balance toward heroic intervention, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a sense of efficacy—the belief that you have the right skills for the job at hand and can make a meaningful difference. One seminal study reported that people who helped crime victims out in public were more likely to have gotten medical or lifesaving training.

Testimonies from this summer's heroes show that such training creates a solid foundation for future heroic action. “I remember my thought process in it,” Thomas told reporters, explaining his calm under life-or-death pressure. “It’s just I’ve had years of going through the bar safety program.” Oakley gave the press a similar explanation. “I did that because that's what I was trained to do. That is what the military has taught me to do.” In certain professions, such as nursing and military service, practitioners flex their lifesaving muscles on a near-daily basis. Through practice, lifesaving actions can become almost routine, and that instills the confidence people need to intervene in a crisis.

To put it another way, you don't have to be born with a certain type of personality, or be an inherently “good person,” to be a hero. You just have to have the right kind of preparation and the self-assurance to seize the moment—and both of those things can be learned. 

Still, many real-world heroes do seem to be extraordinary in one way: They have an uncommonly expansive view of humankind, one that accords high value to all people no matter their faith or background. In her studies of World War II rescuers, political scientist Kristen Monroe has noted the presence of this trait, which she calls a sense of “common humanity.” This inclusive mindset—often fostered by important role models—likely motivates some heroes to take action. Oakley displayed this profound caring for others when he spoke to reporters after the El Paso tragedy. “I'm just focused on the kids that I could not [save] and the families,” he said. “I feel like they were a part of me.”