The Real Source of Heroic Behavior

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We tend to think of heroes as larger-than-life figures who accomplish physical feats, such as the man who pulled two women trapped in a car from the Colorado floods, or the  policeman who rescued a woman and her two children from the mall under fire in Nairobi. And those rescuers are indeed heroic, but we should also be thinking about people like 47-year old Antoinette Tuff. Tuff, in case you haven’t heard, is the school clerk in Decatur, GA who talked school shooter Michael Brandon Hill into dropping his AK-47 last month and likely averted a Newtown-scale tragedy. Tuff is actually fairly characteristic of many real-life heroes—she’s an ordinary person, but her outlook, beliefs and experiences had prepared her to rise to the challenge of an extraordinary situation.

Like many people who later become heroes or career altruists, Antoinette Tuff has made it through her share of rough times. In 2012, her husband left her after 33 years, and she has struggled to raise a son with multiple disabilities. Heroes are often notable for their determination to lead a meaningful life in the face of challenges. University of Winnipeg psychologist Jeremy Frimer and his colleague Lawrence Walker report that heroes are more likely than others to view their life stories in redemptive terms—if they suffer a loss or defeat, they may draw strength from it instead of just viewing it as a setback.

It was her deep inner conviction that we can persevere in spite of difficulties that prompted Tuff to relate to the school shooter as a fellow human being. “You know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me,” she told Hill, according to the transcript of her 911 call. “But look at me now. I’m still working and everything is okay. It’s gonna be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you, though, okay?” Convinced Tuff understood what he was facing, Hill was so moved that he laid his weapon down.

As Tuff’s heroic feat captivated media all over the world, she used her newfound fame to start raising money for inner-city kids. “Proceeds will be used to provide travel for underprivileged children,” she wrote on her fund’s website. “If you change their vision, you can change their lives.” At press time, the fund had raised more than $110,000. Stanford psychologist Phil Zimbardo’s surveys reveal that heroism and generosity often overlap, as in Tuff’s case: Altruists like committed volunteers are more likely to be heroes, and conversely, heroes are more likely to take part in social service. While heroes may take unusual risks that altruists do not, the core motivation to improve other people’s prospects is the same, which is why Zimbardo believes practicing everyday selfless acts may prepare us for heroic intervention later on.

Finally, Tuff  was not a “first responder” per se, but as an employee of the DeKalb County school district, she had gone through emergency training where she had to practice dealing with potential intruders. “The training is so often and extensive they thought [the actual situation] was a drill,” district spokesman Quinn Hudson told CNN. Rehearsing how and what to do in certain situations greatly increases your ability to act under stress. In fact, one study found that people who intervened to help others at a moment’s notice had often had some type of lifesaving training beforehand.

Our traditional conceptions of heroes (male, muscle-bound, unflappable) are far too narrow. A University of Chicago study reveals that women overall actually tend to perform more heroic acts than their male counterparts, although men receive more heroism awards like the Carnegie Medal. Yes, men are more apt to engage in extreme risk-taking, but women feel compelled to take certain risks to serve others—whether that means donating a kidney, providing medical care in a Third World country, or reaching out to a troubled young man with a gun. The prototypical hero with a Y chromosome is little more than a comic book fantasy; in the real world, people of every gender, background, and temperament are capable of coming through heroically when it counts.

Elizabeth Svoboda is the author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, now out from Current.