A lot of the research is focused more on generosity and giving than on doing heroic deeds, per se. Economist Bill Harbaugh at the University of Oregon did a really cool study about what happens in people's brains when they made the decision to give to charity. He was surprised to find that when people make these decisions, a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens was very active. That's an area of the brain associated with processing pleasure and rewards. What he took from this is that when you give of yourself to help someone else, it feels really good. That's something hopefully in the future we'll be able to capitalize on—maybe we can train people to like it even more.
Many of these brain studies seem to show over and over again that when you choose to donate to a charity you like, the brain will light up like how you feel if you won a video game or got on a roller coaster or had some other pleasurable experience. If you think about it, it makes sense: When we do something for somebody else, we are imagining how it’s going to benefit that person. It makes us feel purposeful, and I think purpose is a huge source of life satisfaction for people.
There is also research indicating that we are more likely to help when it’s just one starving face, rather than many. So the adopt-a-starving child campaign actually does work?
It really does. Some marketers have sensed this from the beginning, that people respond to faces and people respond to individual stories. But in more recent years, a psychologist named Paul Slovic has been demonstrating experimentally that we are much more likely to give to a single starving child than a large group of starving children, and even less to a group of two children that just one. This is an effect that shows up very early as we go up the number scale. And it gets worse. If we read in a newspaper that 10,000 were killed in a massacre in some country we never heard of, we are probably going to tune that right out. Even if we know intellectually that 10,000 is a lot of people, our brains are not good at processing what 10,000 deaths are going to mean. We don’t feel like we can do anything meaningful, so we tend to step back and see it as an abstraction.
Are those who have suffered themselves in life more likely to act heroically than others?
The researcher who has done a lot of this investigation is Ervin Staub. He did a study where he found people who had gone through specific bouts of suffering, some had suffered violent assaults, others had gone through natural disasters, and so on. Once they had gone through that, if they heard about Asian tsunami victims, for instance, they were more likely to say that they intended to donate to them. He thinks there is something about knowing how tough certain circumstances can be if they happen to have gone through similar circumstances.
There seems to be a sense in society that if you are doing something helpful to feel good about yourself, then it’s somehow not pure. Is it bad to feel good about doing good?
If the good deed gets done and if the person gets a benefit, I don’t see it as problematic or impure if you feel good as a result. The fact that you’re feeling good might even motivate you to do similar things in the future.
So how do we go about teaching people to be heroes?
There are a number of different approaches you can take. When I spent time with the Real Life Superheroes in New York City [a network of crime-fighters called the New York Initiative], I really saw how well they support each other in doing generous things together, bringing clothes to the homeless or walking dogs at the animal shelter. They would do this as a group or in teams. Like if you have a buddy who helps you jog every morning, getting involved with friends in these altruistic ventures can inspire you to follow through.