How Does Time Relate To Heroism?

How is time related to heroic deeds? How does it affect our perception of them? We hear of “split second decisions” and there is truly heroism there. Michael A. Mansoor jumped on a grenade in a sniper hideout to protect his friends. He had seconds to make the decision and act on it. He died; they didn’t.

Wesley Autrey jumped on the subway track and probably had a minute before the train ran over him and his rescuee. Rob Cook had minutes to deliberate on his decision to cushion the impact of an imminent plane crash for Kimberly Dear. How do these decisions differ from the split-second decisions? These men had time to back out of their decisions. They had time to think about the risk they were taking. Yet, Autrey didn’t jump back to the safety of the platform. Cook didn’t try to save himself. If either man had changed his mind in those minutes, someone would have died. Imagine the inner turmoil. Or perhaps there was never any doubt.

How does that compare with an even longer period of time? What if you’re running up and down stairs of the World Trade Center for hours knowing conditions could worsen at any time? How many times did some of those heroes ushering people down the stairs consider stopping and running themselves?

What about if you’re performing an heroic action for a year? You’re escorting fallen airmen across enemy territory knowing you’ll be killed if caught. You’re rescuing Jewish children from a concentration camp with the threat of death all around you? For a year?

Are we dealing with different kinds of heroism? Are these actions coming from the same place in the brain? Are they the same kinds of actions at all? How do you force yourself to jump on that grenade with a second to think about it? How do you keep walking across the Pyrenees with escaping soldiers time after time after time?

You call out a person yelling racist comments in the mall (Split second.) You refuse to follow your boss’ immoral new rule at the risk of being fired (A week or a month). You spend a year in Americorps jeopardizing your relationship with your father, knowing you need to help others (Long term.) Are they different?

Perhaps we need to study heroes of each type to assist in the varied needs that come up in our lives. There’s lots of questions in this post, so feel free to offer lots of answers…

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One Response to How Does Time Relate To Heroism?

  1. Phil Zimbardo November 7, 2007 at 9:11 pm #

    You raise interesting issues
    Actually I just finished writing a book on time perspective research I have been engaged in for 30 years, Time Matters
    (Free Press, August 15, 2008).

    we know nothing about what I call the Herioc Decisive Moment, the mental calculus of folks considering an action that might later qualify as heroic. The split second heroes, must engage some mental processing but in almost nano seconds
    decide to act, than retreat or passively observe the situation. Whistle blowing heroes clearly have time on their side
    to gather sufficient evidence, perhaps form collaborations with others and weigh the costs/benefits.

    I am calling for new research in the behavioral sciences on heroes and heroism.

    Phil Zimbardo