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Martyrdom May Be Instinctual in Humans

Update Date: Oct 15, 2014 06:34 PM EDT

Some people are born heroes. New research reveals that people who risk their lives for others are hardwired to do so.

After analyzing statements from more than 50 recognized civilian heroes, researchers found evidence suggesting that extreme altruism is motivated by an intuitive process.

Participants in the study were asked to rate 51 statements made during published interviews by recipients of the Carnegie Hero Medal, which are typically awarded to civilians who risk their lives to save strangers.

Participants were then asked to judge whether statements given by medal winners sound intuitive or deliberate. Researchers also used a text analysis algorithm to determine the motivation behind altruistic acts.

"We wondered if people who act with extreme altruism do so without thinking, or if conscious self-control is needed to override negative emotions like fear. Our analyses show that overwhelmingly, extreme altruists report acting first and thinking later," lead researcher David Rand said in a news release.

Researchers then compared statements from medal winners to those from control participants. They found that statements from medal winners were rated as significantly more intuitive than sample deliberate statements.

Researchers said that the latest findings suggest that some people are hardwired to sacrifice themselves for others. However, researchers note that intuitive responses don't always originate from DNA. Evolution can also account for extreme altruism, according to Rand and his team. Researchers explain that people learn that helping other is generally boosts the success of long-term self-interest goals. Rather than possessing an innate cooperative instinct, humans might have developed intuitive habits of cooperation.

The findings are published Oct. 15 in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

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