1. Opinion

Column: The secret of extreme heroes: They don't overthink

We grow up being taught to look before we leap and think before we act, especially in dangerous situations. In its booklet on dealing with "active shooters," the Department of Homeland Security lists confrontation as the "last resort," after, among other things, taking note of the nearest exits and locking yourself in an office. And our spouses and other loved ones tell us, "Don't be a hero."

Yet it turns out, according to a recent study of why people take extreme risks to save lives that are at immediate risk, that the ones who do indeed come to the rescue, like the three Americans on that French train, are those who completely disregard all that advice.

If you stop to contemplate whether to act when the danger actually confronts you, you probably won't, the study suggests. And the answer to the question, "What were they thinking when they risked their lives?" is that they weren't thinking, at least not very much. They just did it. If you think about it too much, you won't.

Yale scholar David Rand calls it the "danger of deliberation," and it appears to be the biggest deterrent to what he calls "extreme altruism." That's the essential finding of Rand's study with co-author Zev G. Epstein of Pomona College, Risking Your Life without a Second Thought: Intuitive Decision-Making and Extreme Altruism. The study does not take issue with such warnings, urge any course of action or pass moral judgment.

Instead, it seeks to answer the questions people ponder after news stories like the one that broke over the weekend, that three American friends helped foil what could have been a mass shooting on a packed high-speed train bound for Paris. They arise too when people don't act, as in July, when no one among the dozens in a Metrorail car in Washington took action to stop a knife-wielding man who punched Kevin Joseph Sutherland to the floor and stabbed him 30 or 40 times until he was dead.

Rand and Epstein studied Carnegie Hero Medal Recipients — people who pulled others from fires, broke up violent crimes or dove into perilous waters to save a life. Here's what some of the study's respondents, not identified in the research, said when asked about their particular feats of courage:

"Honestly, in a situation like that. … You don't think. … You just react. I just reacted. He had to be stopped."

"The minute we realized there was a car on the tracks, and we heard the train whistle, there was really no time to think, to process it. … I just reacted. I think when we're forced into this kind of situation you become a different person."

"I went ahead and just climbed through the fence and I don't remember ever feeling the electricity. … If nobody came to this woman's rescue, she would die. I didn't really take the time to think about what would happen."

The Carnegie heroes come from all walks of life. What they "had in common," Rand said in an interview, "was their style of thinking. They were almost all people who in their particular situation went with their guts. 'I didn't think about it. I just did it.' There weren't people who said 'I was scared. I'm going to make myself do it.' That kind of person is not going to act."

They weren't spending time in the face of a threat calculating the merits, and the costs and benefits, of whether to act or not. They just did it.

"The people that actually act," Rand told the Washington Post, "are the people that both have a sort of cooperative impulse and are people who don't overthink things." It's "the kind of thing that if you stop and think about it, you start coming up with reasons why you shouldn't act. The danger of deliberation is that it is dangerous and if you stop to think it's going to be in your self interest not to act."

The story of Anthony Sadler, Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone and Spec. Alek Skarlatos sounds like it came straight off the pages of Rand and Epstein's study. Stone was in the middle of a deep sleep when he heard the initial scuffle between the shooter and the French citizen who was the first to stumble on him, he said. But then his friend, Skarlatos, 22, who recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan, "just hit me on the shoulder and said 'Go,' " Stone said.

There was no time to plan, they said, no time even to think. "We just kind of acted. There wasn't much thinking going on," Skarlatos said. "At least on my end."

Rand does not cast moral judgment on those who don't act or urge some reckless course of action on the general public. Instead, he only seeks to help explain what motivates those who do act. Rand does believe that "you can cultivate a willingness to act" but he's not yet sure how.

© 2015 Washington Post

* Editors note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version included a photo caption that transposed the names of Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos.