By now, you’ve probably heard multiple inspiring stories of acts of heroism surrounding Hurricane Harvey.
While good-hearted citizens across the country are helping with relief efforts any way they can—whether that’s through SoulCycle rides, donating a dollar or two at Starbucks while grabbing some coffee, or sending million-dollar checks to Houston—Texans are putting their lives on the line to save complete strangers. But what makes average people slip into their superhero suits and step up in times of need while others stand by?
“It takes a lot to truly be courageous and heroic. Research shows that even though it seems like an automatic reflex to help in a crisis, it’s actually an extremely complex thought process.”
“Those who jump in and help do so for a number of reasons,” says Stephanie Parmely, PhD, a California-based psychologist at Mercy Medical Group, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation. “They may have benefited from someone else’s heroism in the past or relate to the victim in another personal way. They may have been taught—through school, family, or even the military—to de-emphasize their sense of ‘self’ and do things for the greater good. At its core, heroism is truly instinctual, passed down through evolution as a behavior that’s important for the survival of the species, not just the individuals or their kin.”
But, that doesn’t mean those who don’t help are bad people—they might just think someone else will jump in and help instead.
“Many of us fall victim to something called ‘the bystander effect,’ a social psychological phenomenon that describes why people don’t help in crisis situations if others are around,” Parmely says. “In situations like this, we often stand back and assume that someone else will jump in and take on the role of the ‘hero’ because the presence of others diffuses the sense of personal responsibility. Other times, people are just in a hurry. Studies have pointed to a clear link between this and the tendency to help.”
Throughout the devastating damage and flooding from Hurricane Harvey, many good samaritans have gotten involved in relief efforts—some on purpose, and some by total accident. Their courage to step in is inspiring—especially since extreme bravery isn’t always second nature.
“It takes a lot to truly be courageous and heroic. Research shows that even though it seems like an automatic reflex to help in a crisis, it’s actually an extremely complex thought process,” Parmely says. “Even though the bystander effect suggests that the presence of others prevents us from helping, much of why we do act can be chalked up to simply seeing someone else do something courageous. Often in that situation, mirror neurons in our brain actually activate as if we’re being heroic as well, inspiring us to act.”
So, what can the world take away from the harrowing (yet inspiring) stories coming out of Texas? The knowledge that everyone has the power to be a hero—cape or not.
“Heroism can actually be taught—some psychologists have actually accomplished this. So as cheesy as it sounds, remember that we all have the capacity to make a lasting difference,” Parmely says. “Those helping others in Hurricane Harvey remind us that it’s important to trust our guts and ‘lean in’ to the opportunity to help.”
Need some inspiration? Watch these videos of Harvey heroes, from first responders and journalists on the job to everyday people who rose to the occasion.
'GOING TO SAVE SOME LIVES'
— Austin Kellerman (@AustinKellerman) August 27, 2017
One man didn’t waste any time when it came to hauling his boat from a nearby city to save some lives.
— Complex (@Complex) August 30, 2017
In an on-air rescue, a news crew saw a man’s truck go into a ravine and rescued him before he was swept away.
When one couple jokingly called Chick-fil-A for some food and a boat, the restaurant manager’s husband ended up helping them evacuate their home on the back of some jet skis.
People aren’t just risking their lives for other people—they’re also rescuing animals trapped in the flood.