Monday, November 24, 2008

The traits of heroes

This is interesting:

Stopped. Cold turkey. North Carolina authorities say a shopper clubbed an alleged carjacker with a frozen turkey as he tried to steal a woman's car in a grocery store parking lot Sunday.

Police say 30-year-old Fred Louis Ervin of Raleigh stole money from a gas station before running across the street to a Harris Teeter store in a town just south of Raleigh. Garner police say he began beating Irene Moorman Bailey while stealing her car.

Other shoppers came to her rescue, including one who hit Ervin with the turkey. Police did not release the person's name.

I am in the middle of reading an incredible book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why that explains why it is that some people are prepared for disaster and others are not. One of the chapters in the book is on heroism and it found that those who are heroes like the above turkey clubber have confidence in their abilities. They tend to have an "internal locus of control"--that is, a sense that they shape their own destiny rather than looking to someone else.

Bystanders, on the other hand, tend to feel buffeted by forces beyond their control. 'They pay scant attention to other people's problems. They will concentrate on their own need for survival,' Oliner [a researcher] says.

According to the book, some common traits of heroes in a study of 450 acts of heroism found a whopping 91 percent of them performed by males. The author notes that this could be a bias of the sample used.... but anyway, the heroes in the study also tended to be working class men. They tended to be truck drivers, laborers, welders, or factory workers--physical jobs that required some risk, just like rescuing. A high number of the rescues were in rural or small-town America and 80% of the rescues happened in places with less than one hundred thousand people. The author opines that this might be because in small towns, people know one another and acts of kindness are recognized and remembered. A strong sense of duty to help others was also mentioned. I will hopefully post more on this incredibly fascinating book.

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Blogger fivewheels said...

When I hear about incidents like this on the news, I almost always flash to a "what would you do" scenario. And I think about how mortified I would be if I didn't do what I could. But hypotheticals and being faced with the situation in real life are clearly two different things.

And I hope it's possible to say this without seeming negative or accusing (I'm sure it's not, but c'est la vie), but honestly, I'm kind of surprised the female hero percentage was as high as 9 percent.

4:19 PM, November 24, 2008  
Blogger Jack Steiner said...

Sounds like a very interesting book. I have often wondered how it is that some people can just stand and watch these things happen.

4:19 PM, November 24, 2008  
Blogger Mike said...

There are other factors too like it can be dangerous to attack someone in a bigger city because of the legal environment. The system very well might say you "used too much force" and declare you to be a criminal too. Add on that the brainwashing like "violence never solved anything" and "don't take the law into your own hands."

It also doesn't help things that in bigger areas, people tend to be more callous toward others. I've seen a lot of behavior in Northern Virginia that I never saw in other parts of Virginia. For example, cases like an older woman just leaving her shopping cart in line in expectation that I would put it away for her. Didn't even asked, just left it for me as though I were her manservant. Traffic behavior is also often a good illustration of similarly thoughtless behavior around here.

There's also the alienation that comes from being lost in a sea of people.

4:24 PM, November 24, 2008  
Blogger PunditJoe said...

Another factor to explain why rural folks are more likely to take action is that they are more used to taking care of problems themselves. Sometime you just gotta do for yourself when neighbors and police are miles away.

4:48 PM, November 24, 2008  
Blogger John said...

Hmmm.... As a Christian, I'm called to believe that God has control of everything. But that doesn't stop me from acting in situations where he's clearly delegated me the initiative. As long as I remember the initiative is delegated, not from within.

In Air Force survival training they taught us that the single most important factor in staying alive was simply the will to live. People with virtually no equipment or training can perform Herculean feats of endurance and resourcefulness. And people have been found frozen to death sitting on top of a sleeping bag, tent, and fire-making materials.

6:17 PM, November 24, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

"... found that those who are heroes like the above turkey clubber have confidence in their abilities."

Pretty much exactly what's been said here many times.

fivewheels --

"But hypotheticals and being faced with the situation in real life are clearly two different things."

True, but hypotheticals are where you program yourself.

8:44 PM, November 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, but hypotheticals are where you program yourself.


People who are not mentally prepared to act will not be able to physically react when the time comes.

9:02 PM, November 24, 2008  
Blogger nedludd said...

It may be more fundamental than just knowing each other. I lived in Delaware for a number of years. Just below the organization of the county, they had "Hundreds" instead of townships. I was told that these areas were called that was because it was an area in which you could get a hundred able bodied men to put out a fire or put up a barn. Perhaps its human nature that just gets washed away when too many people are around.

9:19 PM, November 24, 2008  
Blogger JD Winston said...

The fact that people in small towns commit more acts of heroism is kind of the inverse of the Genovese syndrome. They do something because they're the only ones around to do it.

10:29 PM, November 24, 2008  
Blogger lovemelikeareptile said...

The sex difference in willingness to risk one's live to save the life of a stranger is enormous. Practically no women are willing to perform such acts-- as evidenced by the Carnegie Medal for Heroism which go to civillians who perform such acts-- for a non-family member.
The 2008 awardees include some 25 odd men and one woman.
The causes of this huge sex difference in the willingness to come to the aid of a stranger are best explained by an evolutionary approach to understanding sex differences in behavior.

2:00 AM, November 25, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Upside the head with a frozen Butterball. I'll bet that guy dropped like a lead weight. I know, because I dropped this year's frozen turkey on my foot taking it from the counter to the fridge. The words that came out of my mouth defrosted it right then and there.

I suppose we'll need a license to carry frozen poultry after the perp's day in court.

7:50 AM, November 25, 2008  
Blogger Your Correspondent said...

Observations from life.

1. Observation is preparation. I was in a situation with traffic where I saw the accident before it unfolded, and was able to keep myself and my passengers out of it. Much to their shock and surprise. I simply saw the danger 4 seconds before other drivers and my passengers.

2. Physical abilities matter. I've had a sore knee this month and would have to opt out of most interventions until it gets better. Some people have disabilities all the time.

3. Physical jobs train the mind and strengthen the body, unless they injure the body.

4. Training and situational awareness go hand in hand; In Jerusalem an ex-soldier with a sidearm was able to stop a man rampaging in the street with construction machinery. Several lives were saved by his quick action. In a short time he was able to observe, orient himself, decide, and act.

8:18 AM, November 25, 2008  
Blogger jay c said...

The causes of this huge sex difference in the willingness to come to the aid of a stranger are best explained by an evolutionary approach to understanding sex differences in behavior.

...or by an approach that recognizes a designer might purposefully code different instinctual behaviors into the two sexes. Kind of like how word processing software behaves differently than financial software. Different functions = different designs.

8:32 AM, November 25, 2008  
Blogger Ern said...

I've found that it's as much a function of the area of the country as whether things are urban or rural. I grew up about twenty miles from the corner of State and Madison in Chicago, and the people there behaved as if they cared a whole lot more about others than the people here in Silicon Valley, where acting as if you're the only person in the world is pretty much a way of life.

10:47 AM, November 25, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

... and will the "clubber" be sued by the "clubee" for assault?

12:04 PM, November 25, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

And that's why I love men. Thank you guys.

2:12 PM, November 25, 2008  
Blogger Larry J said...

I wonder if prior military or martial arts training has any impact on the likelihood of someone stepping up in an emergency. Training and mindset probably account for a lot - after all, firefighters run into situations where everyone else runs out. That kind of courage has to come from somewhere.

I've also read that it's very common for people to hesitate to help in an emergency until someone steps out first. Once the first person takes action, others often follow.

4:12 PM, November 25, 2008  
Blogger chardin said...

I note that the article specifies the gender of the victim and the assailant, but not that of the rescuer. This may be an attempt to shield the rescuer's identity, but I have to wonder if it's because the rescuer's maleness would interfere with the narrative.

I think that martial arts training might make a person more confident in their ability to rescue someone, but very few martial arts schools teach the skills to justify that kind of confidence. Unless the school trains with aliveness (see Matt Thornton's blog at for details), the odds are that it is setting the student up for failure. If you learned judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, muay thai, CAMBO, or Greco-Roman wrestling, your odds are pretty good. Otherwise, good luck.

7:34 PM, November 25, 2008  
Blogger Cappy said...

Hey, keep this under your hat, will you? If word gets out in my left-leaning suburb (if they leaned any further they'd fall over), they will outlaw frozen turkeys.

9:25 PM, November 25, 2008  
Blogger lovemelikeareptile said...

Pertaining to the psychology of heroes/acts of heroism during times of danger and possible personality traits related to these acts, the life of Babe Ruth is instructive.

Whether he was trying to steal second with 2 out in the bottom of the 9th in the 1929 World Seires, calling the shot in the 1932 World Series, attempting to the save the life of a girl trampled in Yankee Stadium in 1929 or attempting to revive a man who had a heart attack on a train on the 1928 barnstorming tour ---
" Whether he won or lost, succeed ed or failed, this unique man always responded to critical situations in the same way. He simply acted without any apparent fear or consideration of failure " ( p 280 )
Ruth " relentessly pursued victory and greatness and never let fear of failure or ridicule deter him ." ( p 72 )

The quotes are from Bill Jenkinson's " The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 home Runs ", the definitive record of Babe Ruth's batting prowess, establishing him as , by far, the greatest slugger in baseball history, who hit baseballs harder and further than anyone--ever.

As far as environmental correlates -- Ruth came from humble origins, was abandoned as a child by his parents, and spent his life in a quasi-orphanage/reform facility where no one ever visited him.

11:11 PM, November 25, 2008  
Blogger jay c said...

Here's a funny one: Four men save one woman from another woman.

8:56 AM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger ZakTheManiac said...

As an Italian American I find the phrase "a whopping 91 percent of them performed by males" extremely offensive!

Just kiddin'. :)

10:01 AM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger fboness said...

Dr. Jeffrey Haidt has done work comparing liberal and conservative personalities and their interactions in society. In some ways, the conservatives come accross as "enforcers." They are the ones who will act.

The women I know are quite pro active and capable. One example is the five foot and a little more EMT who grows award winning roses and is a trophy winning competition shooter. In one package you have someone who can plug you, patch you, and send flowers to your hospital room.

8:38 PM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger Synova said...

My father saved a man from drowning at some significant risk to his own life. He fits the profile. Small town, working class, etc.,

The man he saved was a stranger, (and I got to hear about stupid tourists without the sense god gave them for *years* afterward). I don't think that it has anything at all to do with kindness being remembered, at least not for heroics. Yes, people remember kindnesses, but generally the ordinary sorts.

I think it has to do (assuming that men in small towns are more heroic than others) with there not being anyone else there to defer responsibility to. At least for the most part. And if it has to do with public opinion of you, it's the fact that shame still exists. People will know you didn't help.

For what it's worth, I have a memory tickling at the back of my head of hearing of a crazy guy pulling his girl friend along the side of the road and near beating her to death near the truck stop by my home-town. I think that the first person who saw and stopped and *acted* was a woman.

For a "not a small town" example... fellow in our church in California... greater Bay Area... went into his car after a car jacker who was stabbing his wife. That was pretty heroic. She lived, but he died. I'm sure it happened really fast. Other people came and must have thought both old people were dead... they trapped the guy in the car until police arrived.

9:14 PM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

There are different mindsets. The constrruction, factory or other physical worker tends to jump in and do something. The academic will think until someone else has done something. The executive will say "somebody do something". The politician will take a poll about who should do something.

9:17 PM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger strategy said...

Some truths about rural and male characteristics, but don't discount the purely physical, including physical confidence--being accustomed to and practiced in meeting physical challenges with one's own body.

10:03 PM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger Skyler said...

It's a mindset. People who work in offices tend to be people who are passive. People who do physical labor are used to knowing the limits of their own strength.

I like the Mighty Mighty Boss Tones song about bravery, with these lyrics:

"Have you ever had the odds stacked up so high
You need a strength most don't possess?
Or has it ever come down to do or die
You've got to rise above the rest?
I've never had to, knock on wood,
But I know someone who has
Which makes me wonder if i could."

And then I think of Henry the fifth and the men who would deem their manhood cheap on St. Crispin's day.

Men who work in offices often are those that don't "wonder if they could" and do "hold their manhood cheap" and that's partly why they have such jobs. (Of course this is a massive generalization and I only intend for it to apply to a tendency for some and not all, there are plenty of those that don't fit this formula).

All men should be in that mode of thinking all their lives, that's part of our purpose in life. Not everyone will be tested, but when we are tested we should rise above the rest and meet the danger face forward. Failing to do so should be a shame that one should never be allowed to forget.

I hope we all never need to face this test, but if we do, failure is not an option and should not be dismissed.

10:09 PM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger Alex Curylo said...

The causes of this huge sex difference in the willingness to come to the aid of a stranger are best explained by an evolutionary approach to understanding sex differences in behavior.

Or, y'know, just common sense.

The limiting factor on human reproduction is availability of wombs. Therefore all successful cultures will end up with mores that shield/discourage fertile females from all possible risk.

We have a word for cultures that don't follow the above reasoning, too. That word is "extinct".

11:46 PM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger leigh said...

What interesting timing...I just spent 5 days in a cardiac intensive card unit and I was fairly certain I had not had a heart attack even though all signs indicated I had. I fought a lot of professionals about extensive tests to make sure we could find out what happened before they did the tests. As it turned out, I was very seriously ill because of a virus but I DID NOT have a heart attack. It was only VERY gifted diagnosis and my will to trust my own instincts and my past history to contraindicate any major heart episode that helped me SURVIVE!! Iam grateful to medical professionals and science for my ability to live as I do now but I am convinced I had a major impact on the outcome. No one knows how much mind and body can connect than those who do connect their own mind and body on a moment by moment basis. I was lucky but I had an impact on my luck! I would have had a less success outcome it I had trusted my health decisions to someone else. Happy Thanksgiving to All!

11:53 PM, November 26, 2008  
Blogger lovemelikeareptile said...


The problem with your " y'know, common sense" is that it is based on a common misconception-- natural selection does not work on the level of the "culture" .

However, it is certainly true that female's reproductive success demands a more risk-averse approach to life than that of males.

12:01 AM, November 27, 2008  
Blogger Alex Curylo said...

The problem with your " y'know, common sense" is that it is based on a common misconception-- natural selection does not work on the level of the "culture".

Physical evolution has been displaced by memetic evolution in Homo sapiens for at least 5,000 years now. And more likely a great deal more than that, if we had any reliable way to do anthropological research on precivilized cutures.

12:07 AM, November 27, 2008  
Blogger chardin said...

I'm amused at the respondents who chime in with (unverifiable) accounts of the highly capable and heroic women they know. The plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

1:16 AM, November 27, 2008  
Blogger lovemelikeareptile said...


What utter nonsense.

2:09 AM, November 27, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I admire Babe Ruth, as most people do, and not just because he was the home run king. Although not remembered for it, he was also the strike out king. But it never stopped him from swinging for the fences.

My hat is off to the guy with the frozen turkey. Although I know nothing of him or his life experience, he hit a home run that day.

6:43 AM, November 27, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sitting here reading the comments again, brought wave upon wave of pictures running through my mind concerning September 11.

Twin Towers, the Pentagon, a corn field in Pennsylvania. Regardless of anyone's political leanings, whether they hate or love America, or whatever; that day was filled with heroes. Otherwise normal people expecting a normal day had this thrust upon them. We'll never hear their stories. Hell, so many of them, and we don't even know their names.

7:03 AM, November 27, 2008  
Blogger Jamie said...

A couple of months ago, my family and I were in a train station in NYC (actually it was on the NJ side), getting some drinks from a convenience store in there, when an obviously impaired-in-some-way man starting spouting threatening racial epithets at the (apparently Muslim) guy behind the counter and at the elderly black woman who was being waited on. The woman hunched into herself and, as soon as the transaction was finished, scurried out into the station. The impaired guy followed her, still spewing invective. I went after him, not exactly sure what I was going to do except make a lot of noise and draw a lot of attention (he was half a foot taller and at least fifty pounds heavier than I), though I was thinking of ways I could trip him, distract him, SOMETHING, rather than let him make contact with the woman. Luckily he veered off, muttering to himself.

I went back into the store, where my husband had corralled our three kids in a back aisle, waiting for the guy to leave. My first reaction was to be annoyed with my husband for not being in there with me to try to protect the woman if she needed it - and then I realized that my charging forward, willy-nilly, had left him with nothing he COULD do except keep our kids out of it.

My dad won the Air Force's Mackay Trophy back in the late '70s for "the most meritorious flight of the year," saving 28 seamen from their sinking ship in the middle of a terrible storm; my mom faced down a man with a shotgun in the playground of the inner-city elementary school where she taught. My grandfather was FBI; my grandmother was an RN. I wonder if being fools who rush in is just... what my family does. I know we think about stuff like that a lot, discuss what we'd do under this or that circumstance - 9/11 was a prime example, after which we spent quite a bit of time discussing things we could use as either weapons or distractions on a plane. Mental preparation for crisis, then a lack of what might be called "sober judgment" when a crisis actually occurs. Rehearsal and recklessness. ???

Naturally I hope I'm never in a situation where I actually have to rescue someone - I'm not my dad, have none of his special training - but I do try to consider how it could be done.

7:22 AM, November 27, 2008  
Blogger a most peculiar nature said...

Thank goodness I'm married to welder.

I wonder if instances of a woman being "heroic" are less visible simply because women tend to be less demonstrative. Instinct takes over.

I think with women, it seems to be a matter course. No worries.

12:25 PM, November 27, 2008  
Blogger Doom said...

I hope no one has offered these thoughts up already. One thing to note, helping someone in the city might very well lead to the hero being arrested for some reason or other. I call it the Nifonging of law enforcement. Another thing is that many of those who might otherwise be helped are often people who have chosen lives which lead them to trouble, so it is difficult to decide to help. As for myself I would help even to my death if I have a belief that the one I am saving is worth the effort and regardless of consequences. I know that sounds harsh but it is the way of it. There are few in the cities I have lived in or around for whom I would take these risks, but there are a few.

8:32 PM, November 29, 2008  
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