heroic compassion

Heroic Compassion

Extreme altruism: Why do some people put their own lives at risk to help others?

Rather than being a different type of compassion, heroic compassion is a subset of each of the main forms of compassion: global, stranger, familiar, or familial compassionate actions. The distinguishing feature is that the compassionate action might endanger the life of the person who acts. It is thought to be common for risky compassionate action to be shown by a parent toward an offspring who either is in danger of immediate harm or is already being harmed and obviously suffering. Heroic compassion can be either proximal or distal.

Would you act heroically?

Most people do not know if they have heroic compassion, never having been in a situation in which there was a need for a risky rescue. Political scientist Kristen Monroe studied individuals who engaged in a single act of heroic compassion, comparing them to those who hid Jews in Nazi occupied countries and with philanthropists whose actions benefited others without putting their own lives at risk. She points out that those who rescued Jews put not only their own life but also the lives of family members and sometimes entire villages at risk.

Monroe applied five criteria for classifying a behavior as heroic compassion:

  1. it must involve an act, not just a thought or feeling;
  2. the goal is the welfare of the person in danger;
  3. the action taken has consequences for that person;
  4. there must be some risk for the person taking action;
  5. the action is taken with no expectation of reward or recognition.

Extreme altruism

While the actions of the heroic stand out from those of philanthropists as extreme altruism, Monroe found no differences between the philanthropists and those who showed heroic compassion in age, sex, religion, or education. She found the major difference between those who were heroic and the philanthropists was in what she called their “worldview”. Here are examples of what she called their worldview, taken from her interviews:

“You help people because you are a man and you see a need; we all belong to one human family…all people have value.” They also differed in that the heroic said they believed it was not a matter of choice, they had to do it: “They needed help. I had to do it”; “I had no choice.” Psychological measurements were not obtained in her study.

From both Monroe’s research and from many news reports of heroic compassion, it appears that sometimes the heroic act occurs within fractions of a second, spurred on by simply observing another person in danger or suffering. There is no time for conscious registration of compassionate feelings prior to the rescue; the motivation for those heroic actions must be sought elsewhere.

Questions that remain

Not much is known about why some people enact heroic compassion toward strangers, although there is little doubt that it is shown by only a minority of people and a minority of other animals. Does it occur in all primates? And just in primates? Detailed observations of orangutans suggest that stranger altruism toward members of their own and other species may be normative, not exceptional. However, more observations are needed, for this is an extraordinary possibility!

If one member of a family has shown heroic compassion toward strangers, is it likely that it will be manifest in other family members? In the case of twins, is developing global compassion or heroic qualities more common in both of the identical twins than in both fraternal twins? Are there particular cultural backgrounds that generate a higher incidence of such heroic compassion? Are there any commonalities in the early experiences of those who later are heroically compassionate toward strangers?

All of these same questions can be asked of why some, but not most, people show stranger and heroic compassion.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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