A recent study by Dave Rand and Ziv Epstein offers evidence that people who make the decision to risk their lives for a stranger do so quickly and intuitively rather than deliberately. The researchers looked at interviews with recipients of the Carnegie Medal— awarded by the Carnegie Hero Fund to individuals “who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others”—and found that:
when extreme altruists explain why they decided to help, the cognitive processes they describe are overwhelming intuitive, automatic and fast. These results are consistent with previous evidence from the laboratory using low-stakes economic games, and suggest that these earlier findings may generalize to higher takes settings outside the lab.
Earlier research conducted by Rand and his colleagues showed that when people played economic games, they were more cooperative when they made decisions quickly. A few years back, he explained why the researchers thought this was so—an explanation his new research seems to support:
People develop their intuitions in the context of daily life, where cooperation is typically advantageous. This is because many important interactions are repeated, reputation is often at stake, and sanctions for good or bad behaviour often exist. Therefore, there are future consequences of being selfish, and so it's a good idea to be cooperative. Because of this, people get in the habit of being cooperative in social interactions (that is, cooperation becomes an ingrained, automatic response). People then bring these cooperative intuitions with them into situations where actually you can exploit others without getting in trouble (like in our laboratory experiments). As a result, the automatic first response is to be cooperative, following the habit from daily life. It then requires reflection to overcome this cooperative impulse and instead adapt to the unusual situation in these settings, in which cooperation is not advantageous.