Risking your life without a second thought: intuitive decision-making and extreme altruism

PLoS One. 2014 Oct 15;9(10):e109687. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0109687. eCollection 2014.

Abstract

When faced with the chance to help someone in mortal danger, what is our first response? Do we leap into action, only later considering the risks to ourselves? Or must instinctive self-preservation be overcome by will-power in order to act? We investigate this question by examining the testimony of Carnegie Hero Medal Recipients (CHMRs), extreme altruists who risked their lives to save others. We collected published interviews with CHMRs where they described their decisions to help. We then had participants rate the intuitiveness versus deliberativeness of the decision-making process described in each CHMR statement. The statements were judged to be overwhelmingly dominated by intuition; to be significantly more intuitive than a set of control statements describing deliberative decision-making; and to not differ significantly from a set of intuitive control statements. This remained true when restricting to scenarios in which the CHMRs had sufficient time to reflect before acting if they had so chosen. Text-analysis software found similar results. These findings suggest that high-stakes extreme altruism may be largely motivated by automatic, intuitive processes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Altruism*
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Intuition*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Thinking*
  • Young Adult

Grant support

Financial support for the John Templeton Foundation (through a subaward from the New Paths to Purpose Project at Chicago Booth) is gratefully acknowledged. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.