Why people risk their lives to save others

People who risk their lives to save strangers may do so without deliberation, says a study, adding that extreme altruism may be largely motivated by automatic, intuitive processes.

IANS| Last Updated: Oct 16, 2014, 15:26 PM IST

New York: People who risk their lives to save strangers may do so without deliberation, says a study, adding that extreme altruism may be largely motivated by automatic, intuitive processes.

To reach this conclusion, scientists studying human cooperation recruited hundreds of participants to rate 51 statements made during published interviews by recipients of the Carnegie Hero Medal, given to civilians who risk their lives to save strangers.

Study participants as well as a computer text analysis algorithm analysed those statements for evidence of whether the medal winners describe their own acts as intuitive or deliberate.

“We wondered if people who act with extreme altruism do so without thinking or if conscious self-control is needed to override negative emotions like fear. Our analyses show that overwhelmingly, extreme altruists report acting first and thinking later,” said David Rand from Yale University.

The authors found that the statements were judged to be mostly intuitive by both participants and text analysis, even in situations where the "lifesaver" would have sufficient time to deliberate before acting.

“The intuitive responses are not necessarily genetically hard-coded and people learn that helping others is typically in their own long-term self-interest,” Rand said.

People, therefore, develop intuitive habits of cooperation rather than having an innate cooperative instinct preserved in social humans by evolution.

The study was detailed in the open access journal PLOS ONE.