Post No.: 0379
The ‘bystander effect’ suggests that the likelihood of a particular individual helping a stranger under certain conditions, such as when amongst a large crowd and the situation is ambiguous, is low. But the likelihood of an individual – any individual – helping is still high. So what makes some people more heroic than others?
Heroism is related to altruism but goes much farther by involving deep personal sacrifice. It involves a commitment to a cause along with the willingness to accept the potentially personally dire consequences of doing so. Heroic acts include saving lives or standing firm to one’s values even in the face of death or punishment. They can be transient one-off acts or projects to serve a greater good that take years to come to fruition.
The term ‘hero’ has therefore unfortunately been overused and watered-down in recent decades to include people like sportspeople or actors who’ve not quite demonstrated such courage or sacrifice. Some of these individuals are good role models but not really heroes. True heroics isn’t about winning or losing. Acting is just acting. Real heroes often just want better equipment to do their jobs rather than clapping too.
Conversely, we frequently watch modern movies with characters who demonstrate heroism but seldom do we talk with children about the deeper meanings of these stories afterwards. The true heroic values are often glossed over and the focus is more on having cool powers, weapons, costumes and kicking the **** out of those designated as the baddies!
Heroes are generally revered with a high status and are considered sexually attractive despite being people who seem suicidal in risking the life of their own genetic material. People who commit heroic acts that risk their own life even for complete strangers (i.e. those who aren’t kin), or people who are implied to do so if they find themselves in a situation that calls for it (such as people who wear certain uniforms in their job e.g. firefighters), are often considered sexually attractive. So it’s certainly not the case that the reason for many people finding such heroic people attractive as potential mates is because they’re simply saving their own close genetic relatives (e.g. they’re just saving their own cousins).
So what’s peculiar is not just heroes saving people who are unrelated to them at their own risk, but people generally finding such heroes more attractive, all else being equal. People who try to save other animal species entirely are often considered attractive too. Isn’t that just a waste of resources from a selfish gene perspective? Many people also adopt children who aren’t their genetic kin and will put in the resources to love and care for them as if they’re their own fluffy biological offspring. This can all therefore seem strange – to find attractive and want to breed with someone who’ll risk their own genetic legacy for the genetic legacy of those who aren’t necessarily their own relatives. Why would we want our offspring to share those sort of self-sacrificial selfless genes? Dying for even non-family members seems foolish from a selfish gene perspective, yet it seems like such non-kin altruism is really prized and respected amongst most cultures around the world.
Well the closer the people who’ve been saved are to us (e.g. they’ve just saved your niece), the more attractive the heroes are to us in general. The people who are closest to us are within our ingroups, and so we like such heroes because they serve our group. Members of our own ingroups don’t just include our own kin though (e.g. they could be people of our own country or ethnicity). Groups that cooperate together, regardless of the strict genetic relationship between the members within each group, will out-compete other groups that don’t cooperate as well for the greater good of their own groups. From a group selection perspective, there’s far more to it than ‘selfish genes’ directly prioritising what’s best for their own specific copy of genes at the expense of others. To serve yourself, serve your team too.
So heroes who sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others aren’t selfish but groupish i.e. they put their group first rather than themselves. Putting one’s own individual interests before the overall interests of the team can harm the team and therefore in turn harm oneself in the long run. (This is like a more senior player pushing insistently to play in the final of a major team competition, when she/he knows that she/he isn’t quite completely fit after a recent injury and someone else more junior is completely fit and would do better for the team instead.)
For a social species like humans, we’ve got to look at groups of people being groupish rather than individuals being selfish. And when people behave heroically, they are not behaving selfishly – even in consciously wanting to be a hero itself. (As another sporting metaphor, it’s like passing to a teammate who has a clearer chance of scoring rather than wanting to be the one bestowed in glory. Furrywisepuppy and I probably use too many sporting analogies or metaphors but at the end of the day we always give 110%!) This means that some true heroes are those who have sacrificed something to the point of never gaining the limelight for themselves, and it’s down to us to notice and reward these acts. These are the Samwise Gamgees of the world. Post No.: 0119 explained how those who prevent harms early in a potential chain of events perform heroic acts too.
It therefore makes sense from a group selection perspective. Being groupish is attractive in sexual selection terms whilst being selfish is not. Witnessing heroic or virtuous acts also elicits the emotion of elevation – it makes us feel lifted and optimistic about humanity.
Being groupish isn’t always right though. This isn’t about saying that being selfish is better – it about the problems of ingroup biases and defending ingroup members even when they commit wrongs towards outgroups members.
‘Group selection’ is natural selection acting on groups rather than individuals, or ‘group versus group’ competition rather than ‘individual versus individual’ competition or ‘gene versus gene’ competition. So note that in this context it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘species versus species’ competition. In most cases, we’re not altruistic to each other because we’re thinking about preserving our own species – we’re thinking about our own tribes, nationalities, teams or the like. Some experts criticise group selection as an explanation for what’s happening though because it’s not a fundamental mechanism like selecting at the gene or even meme level (memes are units of cultural information spread by imitation). But we can have different levels of explanations for things otherwise everything in this universe is literally about quantum phenomena (or maybe something even more fundamental yet discovered?) and about the ‘units of selection’ of particles and antiparticles and the question of why there seems to be vastly more matter than antimatter ‘surviving’ in this universe… at which level even genes are hard to describe! Moreover, genetic instincts are only part of the equation of behaviour because it’s a gene-culture co-evolution, and cultures transmit and replicate within and between groups.
Anyway, heroism signals credibility too – there’s no greater show of commitment than being willing to die for a cause one believes in. It’s also sometimes a super signal of the genetic fitness of being able to save others at the risk of one’s own life yet surviving nonetheless, because many people who attempt risky ‘last-gasp-type’ heroic acts don’t survive. From this perspective, it could therefore be interpreted as a selfish behaviour – an enormous gamble but with an ultimately selfish prize of wanting to seem highly sexually attractive? Whatever the case, if it benefits each individual overall to collectively work together then collectively work together. If it overall and in the long run benefits one’s own genes to be kind and charitable at the individual level for the sake of the group level then be kind and charitable. And if it helps oneself to be more selfless and less greedy then be more selfless and less greedy. (This is especially true because when we look at the bigger picture of potential conflicts with ever-deadlier weapons and means, and the longer-term problems of the consumption of limited environmental resources, for instance, we face great risks to our own existence, individually and collectively, if we don’t cooperate more.) So if it ultimately serves oneself in the bigger picture to be nicer to others then it’s ultimately smart to be nicer to others! Meow.
There are limits to altruism though, or at least we’ll call people bonkers if they went too far, such as if someone consciously wished to donate both their kidneys! But short of going that far – we value and share classic stories of heroes to children as inspirational figures and role models for moral behaviour, whether with or without a religious context.
The circumstances we face can make us do bad things (e.g. walking on after witnessing an injustice because one deferred responsibility onto others for being amongst a crowd – we could be argued to be tacitly condoning evil things if we don’t stand against them). But the circumstances can make us do good things too (e.g. heroically intervening in an emergency if we’re the only bystander around to help someone). So we can all do bad things, and we can all do good things, depending on the circumstances we face. Yet we can prepare and set ourselves up to more likely do good things despite the situations we face…
People who’ve survived tragedies before are more likely to be heroic, as are those who volunteer, are vigilant and have a sense of responsibility to the community. They are said to have a ‘heroic imagination’ – they anticipate dangers and anticipate what to do under those circumstances. (The Heroic Imagination Project, founded by Philip Zimbardo, is a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting heroism in everyday life.)
To foster a heroic imagination – we should be present and mindful of what’s happening around us to be more ready and aware of any emergency, injustice or ‘something not quite right’ in our surroundings. We should engage with others in public more and query if people are all right if they don’t seem so. We should anticipate possible dangers in the environment and think ‘what might happen next?’ to be ready in case someone needs our help. (These vigilant skills are essentially what makes up a ‘Spidey sense’!) Of course, hyper-vigilance or paranoia is stressful and unhealthy but we need a level of attention for everyone around us that’s caring rather than constantly having our heads buried in a phone with headphones on whenever we’re outside. We also need to anticipate the consequences of our own actions or inactions. Run through predicted scenarios in our heads and imagine or visualise ourselves doing the right things in these scenarios. Resist the tendency to rationalise our inactions or that something bad we saw was really okay somehow. And stand strong to the values we believe in and don’t fear interpersonal conflict or be too self-conscious about being socially ostracised for not following the status quo – if our cause is just then we should trust that others will eventually recognise this (e.g. Black Lives Matter).
We shouldn’t want emergencies or injustices to happen but they will happen in this world, so we should be ready when the opportunity to be heroic arises!
Meow. I don’t have an answer to this so – out of interest – why do you think that, if one is otherwise young and healthy then sacrificing oneself by donating all of one’s organs to save many other lives who’d otherwise die without these donations is generally considered daft, whereas jumping on a live grenade to sacrifice oneself in order to save the same number of lives seems different? Please share what you think via the Twitter comment button below.