Attributes of Persons Performing Acts of Heroism and of the Recipients of
Ronald C. Johnson1,2
University of Hawaii
450 acts of heroism were recognized by the
Fund Commission during the period of 1989-July 1, 1993. About
90 percent of the acts of heroism were performed by males and about 60 percent
of the recipients of the acts were males. A
higher proportion of women rescued people they knew,
and a higher proportion of males rescued people they did not
know. Close to one in five rescue attempts of both male and
female rescuers resulted in their deaths. Deaths were more
likely to occur in rescuers of persons they knew than of those they didn't
know. Age differences between rescuers and those
rescued and between sexes in each group were slight; however, as might be
expected in terms of ability and need, higher
proportions of persons rescued than rescuers were among the very
young and the old. Rescuers were working class rural or small town residents
more often than would be expected from general
"I do not expect to stimulate or create heroism by this
fund, knowing well that heroic action is impulsive: But I
do believe that if the hero is inspired in the bold attempt to save his
fellows, he and those dependent upon him should not suffer pecuniarily"
(Andrew Carnegie, 1904).
Sociobiologists studying altruism generally are concerned with behaviors that
reduce Darwinism fitness (Hamilton, 1964),
while psychologists generally investigate "helping behaviors" that would have
little or no effect on fitness (e.g., see the list of helping behaviors presented by Eagly and Crowley,
in their assessment of sex differences in altruism; see the altruistic
behaviors listed on altruism questionnaires by
Rushton, Chrisjohn, and Fekken, 1981, and by Johnson, Danko, Darvill, Bochner,
Bowers, Huang, Park, Pecjak, Rahim, and
Pennington, 1989). The present report is of altruism in its
purest or most extreme form, the act of risking one's life in an attempt to
save the life of another.
The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission was established by Andrew Carnegie in 1904
to honor and reward acts of heroism in the united states, Canada, and
Newfoundland (then separate from Canada). Heroic acts were specifically
consideration if performed by public servants such as police or firemen when
on duty, members of the armed forces, children
considered to be too young to comprehend the risk involved, and
members of the same family except in cases of outstanding heroism
when the rescuer lost his or her life or was severely injured
(Carnegie, 1904, in Carnegie Hero Fund Commission Annual Report,
1992). From 1904 through 1992, the commission considered 67,345 rescue acts and made 7,695 awards. Along with medals, the
commission awarded $19,443,522 to heroic persons and their
survivors through 1992. Attributes of rescuers and persons
rescued are described and permit an evaluation of different theories
Materials The present report is based on information
provided concerning the 450 awards granted in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 and
through July 1 of 1993. Each award is described in an
award statement in the yearly report of the commission. The age and sex of the
rescuer and of the person rescued is presented,
except in few cases when the persons rescued are described in
such terms as "fifteen school children and a teacher" or "many
persons". The occupation and place of residence of the rescuer
is given in all but a few instances, along with a description of
the heroic act. If the rescuer and person rescued were related,
the relationship is described. In the case of persons not
related biologically or through marriage, the reports frequently provide
information about whether the rescuer and the person
rescued knew one another (e.g., neighbor, friend, work partner,
companion on the same fishing expedition). Since a high
proportion of the acts of heroism occurred in small towns or
rural environments, where everyone in the area knows or knows of
almost everyone else, it is likely that some persons not
explicitly stated as having known one another were not total strangers. However, unless the record is explicit in this
matter, it is assumed herein that the rescuer and person rescued
did not know one another.
Procedure Data were tabulated regarding the age and sex of
rescuers and of persons rescued, the association of the rescuer
to the person rescued (related, knew one another but not related, didn't know
one another), and the place of residence and
occupation of the rescuer. Data concerning relationships of
rescuers to persons rescued were tabulated separately for those
persons who died as a result of their heroic acts.
There were 411 male and 39 female rescuers. The sexes of
the persons rescued, when known (as noted above, in a few cases
where many persons were rescued, sex is not described) is 332
males and 213 females. The age and sex of rescuers and of
persons rescued is presented in Table 1. Tests of significance
of differences between proportions (Ferguson, 1976, pp. 155-156)
show that males are more frequently rescuers (z=7.61 p<.001) and
(z=2.08 p<.05). The proportion of male rescuers is greater than the proportion
of males rescued (X2=120.59, 1 df
Seventy-three of the 411 male rescuers (17.76%) and seven of
the 39 female rescuers (17.95%) died in their rescue attempts. As noted
earlier, persons did not receive awards for rescuing
family members unless they died or were seriously injured in
their rescue attempts. Keeping this in mind, the association of
deceased rescuer with the person rescued is, for males: relative (including
spouse), 23; known but not related, 22; not known to rescuer, 28; and, for
females: relative, 6; known but not
related, 1; with no deaths occurring in attempts to rescue
unknown unrelated people. A significantly higher proportion of
rescuers died rescuing persons they knew (but were not related
to) than in rescuing persons they did not know (X2 = 10.15, 1 df,
p<.001. Of those males who rescued or attempted to rescue
biological relatives (not spouses or stepchildren) 17 males and
15 females were younger and two males and four females were older
than the rescuer. Five females rescued or attempted to rescue
biological relatives. Of these, seven males and one female were
younger and none older than the rescuer. In all, 40 of those
rescued were younger and only six older than the rescuer.
Rescuers of relatives. are. far more. likely to rescue younger
as opposed to older relatives, as would be expected from an
inclusive fitness point of view. However, when looking at all
cases, as in Table 1, the differences in ages are trivial
between rescuers and people rescued and between sexes among both
rescuers and those rescued. These differences are slight,
despite the fact that only 13 rescuers as opposed to 181 of those
rescued were children of age 14 or younger. Differences in
proportions of rescuers to persons rescued are similar though
less marked at the other end of the age continuum, with 19
rescuers and 58 persons rescued being 60 years of age or older.
When reading the individual citations, it was strikingly
apparent that Carnegie heroism awards went to people residing in
small towns. Some of this preponderance of small town or rural
heroes or heroines may be a result of differences in reporting
acts of heroism. There is no way of assessing this possible bias from the data
available. However, it is possible to contrast the
size of the place of residence of heroes and heroines with data
concerning the general population.
The 1990 population of the United states was 248,709,873 (U.S. Bureau of the
Census, 1992, p.8, Table 1), of whom
192,728,000 (approximately 77.5%) resided in metropolitan areas
(U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, p. 29, Table 33). Of the 400
acts of heroism engaged in by Americans, 23 (5.75%) were heroic
acts of persons residing in cities over 1,000,000 in population, 57 (14.25%)
of residents of cities of 100,000 - 999,999
population, and the remaining 320 (80.00%) acts were performed by
persons residing in places with less than 100,000 population.
The median size of residence of Americans performing heroic acts
(based on a random sample of 100 acts) is 11,881 (population data
are from U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, pp 35-37, Table 38).
The 50 acts of heroism performed by Canadians were, by size of
place of residence: cities of over 1,000,000, 4 heroic acts; 100,000 -
999,999, 12 heroic acts; under 100,000, 34 heroic acts.
The median city size of residence for all Canadian heroism awardees is 11,642
(Minister of Supply and Service, 1990).
Along with heroism being a rural or small town phenomenon, the other aspect of
the award statements that was striking had to do with the occupations of
rescuers. No females had professional occupations. Several males who attempted
to rescue relatives had relatively high status occupations. Only two male
rescuers of unrelated persons ( a surgeon who risked his life and also his
professional skill — possible burns on his hands — saving a
person from a burning car and a school principal who agreed to serve as a
hostage to permit the freeing of other hostages) had
high status occupations. Some of this bias toward males of
relatively low occupational status being over-represented among heroes comes
from the nature of the job; many low status jobs are
dangerous jobs, and if one's work mate is in trouble, one tries to rescue him. Not all of this difference results from the rescue
of work-mates. For example, rescuing persons from burning houses or cars or
from drowning is an option for all persons, yet only
one professional did so. There is no way to determine
statistical significance in these matters since the proportions
of persons of differing levels of occupational status are likely
to vary between rural/small town America, where most acts of
heroism occur, as opposed to the general population, for whom
occupational data are available.
The occupations of males who died in rescue attempts of
unrelated persons appear to be similar to those of the entire
sample and are as follows: six students, five laborers, three
truck drivers, two welders, two retired men (prior occupation not
listed) and one each: retired truck driver, plumber's helper,
service station attendant, telephone solicitor, houseparent, roofer, forestry
technician, press operator, chemical plant operator, electrician, electrician
servicer, poultry processor, maintenance foreman, store manager, quality
power plant inspector, contractor, rancher, car dealership
manager, real estate investigator, bakery supervisor, charter
boat captain, procurement engineer, photographer, entertainer, lumber broker,
and "disabled" (presumably retired). (Occupational data were not
provided regarding the remaining few rescuers.
Ninety-one percent of the acts of heroism are acts of males and 61 percent of
the persons whose rescues were attempted were males. The fact that a
preponderance of males needed rescuing
suggests that males have more dangerous jobs and involved themselves in more
dangerous activities when off the job. Eagly
and Crowley (1986) stated that the greater frequency of male altruism toward
non-kin is, basically, a result of watching too many John Wayne movies. Perhaps so, but about one in five paid
with his life for having done so. Much had been said about the
high proportion of crimes of violence in which males were the
perpetrators. The same kind of male willingness to involve themselves in
risk taking is present in their altruism.
Eagly and Crowley (1986) state that males are more likely to be altruistic to
strangers and females to persons with whom they
are close. Table 2 supports their statements to a limited
degree. However, women, too, help strangers in over 50 percent
of their. rescue attempts. While the condition of the awards inflates.
mortality rates of those rescuing relatives, a contrast of the mortality
rates of persons rescuing or attempting to rescue persons they knew (but to whom
they were not related) vs. didn't know indicates that amount of contact with the persons
rescued influences the degree of risk taken by the rescuer.
If altruism has a basis of kinship selection, then rescuers should be more likely to risk their lives for younger than older biological
relatives. This is the case, with 40 younger vs. 6
older biological relatives rescued, but may be explainable in
terms of the greater needs of younger relatives (usually young
children) rather than greater willingness to take risks on the
part of the rescuer.
While biological relatives rescue younger relatives far more
often. than older relatives, the differences in age between
rescued/rescuer are slight for the entire sample. If younger persons were
rescued more often, one could argue that the
probability of being rescued was, to some degree, influenced by
reproductive potential. Instead, the mean age of rescuers and
the rescued are similar but the variation across ages among those
rescued is far greater. The old as well as the young are
rescued. Need, not reproductive potential, may be the more
important predictor of whether one will be rescued.
Reciprocal altruism theory (Trivers, 1971, 1985) is based on
the belief that we behave toward others in altruistic ways because we believe
that by doing so we increase the probability
that others will behave altruistically toward us when we are in
need. In the same vein, we behave altruistically towards others
because we have been recipients of altruism in the past.
Altruism would be expected to be more frequent in a milieu in which an
individual's acts of altruism were known to the other I
people in that milieu. Clearly, it is in rural or small town
America where one's own altruistic acts would be known to others
and more likely to evoke reciprocity. The vast preponderance of
altruistic acts are performed by rural or small town residents,
as would be expected from reciprocal altruism theory.
Daly and Wilson (1988) note that men who kill usually are
men who have little to lose in terms of Darwinian fitness; they
are less likely than others to pass on their genes. Rescuers are
not comparable to Daly's and Wilson's violent men; the rescuers —
both male and female — were employed unless they were students or
retired persons, and probably are stable and productive citizens. However,
they appear to be from far lower occupational levels
than one would expect for the population at large. Perhaps small
town working class Americans and Canadians retain the belief that each of us
is our brother's (or sister's) keeper to a greater
degree than do other segments of the population.
As Carnegie stated in the introductory quotation (see p.1,
Carnegie Commission, 1992), he recognized that there is no time
to enter into elaborate calculations before engaging in a heroic act. Even so,
these data suggest that heroism is, to a degree, predictable from demographic
information. The present data are from 1989 to the
present. An analysis of the data from 1904 to
the present probably would permit researchers to examine secular
trends in heroism and bring empirical data to bear on the common belief that
our culture has become more and more anomic over
Fund Commission: 1992 Annual report, Pittsburgh, PA
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(4th edition) ().
New York, McGraw-Hill.
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J.K., Huang, Y.H., Park, J.Y., Pecjak, V., Rahim, A.R.A., &
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altruism and its correlates. Personality
and Individual Differences, 10, 855-868.
Minister of Supply and Service (1990). Canadian Gazetteer Atlas,
Ottawa, MacMillan of Canada.
Rushton, J. P., Chrisjohn, R. D., & Fekken, G. C., (1981). The
altruistic personality and the self-report altruism scale.
and Individual Differences, 2, 293-302.
Trivers, R. L., (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism.
Review of Biology, 46, 35-57.
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1. Dept. of Psychology and Behavioral Biology Laboratory,
University of Hawaii at
Manoa, Honolulu, HI 96822.
2. I express my gratitude to the Carnegie Hero
2307 Oliver Building, 535 Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and to
Walter Rutkowski, Executive Vice
President of the fund, for providing me with the data
analyzed herein. [Back]