Attributes of Persons Performing Acts of Heroism and of the Recipients of These Acts

Ronald C. Johnson1,2
University of Hawaii

ABSTRACT: 450 acts of heroism were recognized by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission during the period of 1989-July 1, 1993.  About 90 percent of the acts of heroism were performed by males and about 60 percent of the recipients of the acts were males.  A higher proportion of women rescued people they knew, and a higher proportion of males rescued people they did not know.  Close to one in five rescue attempts of both male and female rescuers resulted in their deaths.  Deaths were more likely to occur in rescuers of persons they knew than of those they didn't know.  Age differences between rescuers and those rescued and between sexes in each group were slight; however, as might be expected in terms of ability and need, higher proportions of persons rescued than rescuers were among the very young and the old.  Rescuers were working class rural or small town residents more often than would be expected from general population data.

 "I do not expect to stimulate or create heroism by this fund, knowing well that heroic action is impulsive: But I do believe that if the hero is inspired in the bold attempt to save his fellows, he and those dependent upon him should not suffer pecuniarily" (Andrew Carnegie, 1904).

Sociobiologists studying altruism generally are concerned with behaviors that reduce Darwinism fitness (Hamilton, 1964), while psychologists generally investigate "helping behaviors" that would have little or no effect on fitness (e.g., see the list of helping behaviors presented by Eagly and Crowley, 1986, in their assessment of sex differences in altruism; see the altruistic behaviors listed on altruism questionnaires by
Rushton, Chrisjohn, and Fekken, 1981, and by Johnson, Danko, Darvill, Bochner, Bowers, Huang, Park, Pecjak, Rahim, and Pennington, 1989).  The present report is of altruism in its purest or most extreme form, the act of risking one's life in an attempt to save the life of another.

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission was established by Andrew Carnegie in 1904 to honor and reward acts of heroism in the united states, Canada, and Newfoundland (then separate from Canada).  Heroic acts were specifically excluded from consideration if performed by public servants such as police or firemen when on duty, members of the armed forces, children considered to be too young to comprehend the risk involved, and members of the same family except in cases of outstanding heroism
when the rescuer lost his or her life or was severely injured (Carnegie, 1904, in Carnegie Hero Fund Commission Annual Report, 1992).  From 1904 through 1992, the commission considered 67,345 rescue acts and made 7,695 awards.  Along with medals, the commission awarded $19,443,522 to heroic persons and their survivors through 1992.  Attributes of rescuers and persons rescued are described and permit an evaluation of different theories concerning altruism.


Materials  The present report is based on information provided concerning the 450 awards granted in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 and through July 1 of 1993.  Each award is described in an award statement in the yearly report of the commission.  The age and sex of the rescuer and of the person rescued is presented, except in few cases when the persons rescued are described in such terms as "fifteen school children and a teacher" or "many persons".  The occupation and place of residence of the rescuer is given in all but a few instances, along with a description of the heroic act.  If the rescuer and person rescued were related, the relationship is described.  In the case of persons not related biologically or through marriage, the reports frequently provide information about whether the rescuer and the person rescued knew one another (e.g., neighbor, friend, work partner, companion on the same fishing expedition).  Since a high proportion of the acts of heroism occurred in small towns or rural environments, where everyone in the area knows or knows of almost everyone else, it is likely that some persons not explicitly stated as having known one another were not total strangers.  However, unless the record is explicit in this matter, it is assumed herein that the rescuer and person rescued did not know one another.

Procedure  Data were tabulated regarding the age and sex of rescuers and of persons rescued, the association of the rescuer to the person rescued (related, knew one another but not related, didn't know one another), and the place of residence and occupation of the rescuer.  Data concerning relationships of rescuers to persons rescued were tabulated separately for those persons who died as a result of their heroic acts.


There were 411 male and 39 female rescuers.  The sexes of the persons rescued, when known (as noted above, in a few cases where many persons were rescued, sex is not described) is 332 males and 213 females.  The age and sex of rescuers and of persons rescued is presented in Table 1.  Tests of significance of differences between proportions (Ferguson, 1976, pp. 155-156) show that males are more frequently rescuers (z=7.61 p<.001) and (z=2.08 p<.05).  The proportion of male rescuers is greater than the proportion of males rescued (X2=120.59, 1 df p<.001) .

Table 1: Age and sex of rescuers and of persons rescued.





Age Male Female   Male Female
0-4 0 0   54 33
5-9 1 0   33 20
10-14 12 0   27 14
15-19 35 1   26 31
20-24 41 4   21 14
25-29 76 12   28 15
30-34 71 5   27 8
35-39 67 8   19 15
40-44 54 3   17 9
45-49 21 1   16 7
50-54 11 1   15 3
55-59 6 1   7 2
60-64 9 -   5 7
65-69 5 3   4 5
70-74 1 -   3 13
75-79 1 -   1 6
80-84 - -   2 6
85-89 - -   1 2
90-94 - -   1 1
95-99 - -   1 -
TOTAL 411 39   303* 211*
MEAN AGE 33.05 35.07   29.45 29.99
Numbers are less than' the total numbers of persons rescued, since sex but not age is listed in some instances.

The association of the rescuer with the person or persons rescued is shown in Table 2.  If the rescuer attempted to rescue persons in two categories, the association was categorized in terms of the person most close; e.g., a man tried to rescue his granddaughter and other girls; he would be among those listed as rescuing relatives.  Relatives include cousins, nephews, and uncles who would unlike first degree relatives be eligible for awards in the absence of death or injury.

Table 2: Association of rescuer with the persons rescued

Sex of rescuer: Related Know, not related Didn't know
Male 31 (7.54%) 97 (23.60%) 283 (68.86%)
Female 6 (15.38%) 13 (33.33%) 20 (51.28%)

X2 = 5.68, 2df, P<.058

Seventy-three of the 411 male rescuers (17.76%) and seven of the 39 female rescuers (17.95%) died in their rescue attempts.  As noted earlier, persons did not receive awards for rescuing family members unless they died or were seriously injured in their rescue attempts.  Keeping this in mind, the association of deceased rescuer with the person rescued is, for males: relative (including spouse), 23; known but not related, 22; not known to rescuer, 28; and, for females: relative, 6; known but not related, 1; with no deaths occurring in attempts to rescue unknown unrelated people.  A significantly higher proportion of rescuers died rescuing persons they knew (but were not related to) than in rescuing persons they did not know (X2 = 10.15, 1 df, p<.001.  Of those males who rescued or attempted to rescue biological relatives (not spouses or stepchildren) 17 males and 15 females were younger and two males and four females were older than the rescuer.  Five females rescued or attempted to rescue biological relatives.  Of these, seven males and one female were younger and none older than the rescuer.  In all, 40 of those rescued were younger and only six older than the rescuer.

Rescuers of relatives. are. far more. likely to rescue younger as opposed to older relatives, as would be expected from an inclusive fitness point of view.  However, when looking at all cases, as in Table 1, the differences in ages are trivial between rescuers and people rescued and between sexes among both rescuers and those rescued.  These differences are slight, despite the fact that only 13 rescuers as opposed to 181 of those rescued were children of age 14 or younger.  Differences in proportions of rescuers to persons rescued are similar though less marked at the other end of the age continuum, with 19 rescuers and 58 persons rescued being 60 years of age or older.

When reading the individual citations, it was strikingly apparent that Carnegie heroism awards went to people residing in small towns.  Some of this preponderance of small town or rural heroes or heroines may be a result of differences in reporting acts of heroism.  There is no way of assessing this possible bias from the data available.  However, it is possible to contrast the size of the place of residence of heroes and heroines with data concerning the general population.

The 1990 population of the United states was 248,709,873 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, p.8, Table 1), of whom 192,728,000 (approximately 77.5%) resided in metropolitan areas (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, p. 29, Table 33).  Of the 400 acts of heroism engaged in by Americans, 23 (5.75%) were heroic acts of persons residing in cities over 1,000,000 in population, 57 (14.25%) of residents of cities of 100,000 - 999,999 population, and the remaining 320 (80.00%) acts were performed by persons residing in places with less than 100,000 population.  The median size of residence of Americans performing heroic acts (based on a random sample of 100 acts) is 11,881 (population data are from U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992, pp 35-37, Table 38).  The 50 acts of heroism performed by Canadians were, by size of place of residence: cities of over 1,000,000, 4 heroic acts; 100,000 - 999,999, 12 heroic acts; under 100,000, 34 heroic acts.  The median city size of residence for all Canadian heroism awardees is 11,642 (Minister of Supply and Service, 1990).

Along with heroism being a rural or small town phenomenon, the other aspect of the award statements that was striking had to do with the occupations of rescuers.  No females had professional occupations.  Several males who attempted to rescue relatives had relatively high status occupations.  Only two male rescuers of unrelated persons ( a surgeon who risked his life and also his professional skill possible burns on his hands saving a person from a burning car and a school principal who agreed to serve as a hostage to permit the freeing of other hostages) had high status occupations.  Some of this bias toward males of relatively low occupational status being over-represented among heroes comes from the nature of the job; many low status jobs are dangerous jobs, and if one's work mate is in trouble, one tries to rescue him.  Not all of this difference results from the rescue of work-mates.  For example, rescuing persons from burning houses or cars or from drowning is an option for all persons, yet only one professional did so.  There is no way to determine statistical significance in these matters since the proportions of persons of differing levels of occupational status are likely to vary between rural/small town America, where most acts of heroism occur, as opposed to the general population, for whom occupational data are available.

The occupations of males who died in rescue attempts of unrelated persons appear to be similar to those of the entire sample and are as follows: six students, five laborers, three truck drivers, two welders, two retired men (prior occupation not listed) and one each: retired truck driver, plumber's helper, service station attendant, telephone solicitor, houseparent, roofer, forestry technician, press operator, chemical plant operator, electrician, electrician servicer, poultry processor, maintenance foreman, store manager, quality control inspector, power plant inspector, contractor, rancher, car dealership manager, real estate investigator, bakery supervisor, charter boat captain, procurement engineer, photographer, entertainer, lumber broker, and "disabled" (presumably retired).  (Occupational data were not provided regarding the remaining few rescuers.


Ninety-one percent of the acts of heroism are acts of males and 61 percent of the persons whose rescues were attempted were males.  The fact that a preponderance of males needed rescuing suggests that males have more dangerous jobs and involved themselves in more dangerous activities when off the job.  Eagly and Crowley (1986) stated that the greater frequency of male altruism toward non-kin is, basically, a result of watching too many John Wayne movies.  Perhaps so, but about one in five paid with his life for having done so.  Much had been said about the high proportion of crimes of violence in which males were the perpetrators.  The same kind of male willingness to involve themselves in risk taking is present in their altruism.

Eagly and Crowley (1986) state that males are more likely to be altruistic to strangers and females to persons with whom they are close.  Table 2 supports their statements to a limited degree.  However, women, too, help strangers in over 50 percent of their. rescue attempts.  While the condition of the awards inflates. mortality rates of those rescuing relatives, a contrast of the mortality rates of persons rescuing or attempting to rescue persons they knew (but to whom they were not related) vs. didn't know indicates that amount of contact with the persons rescued influences the degree of risk taken by the rescuer.

If altruism has a basis of kinship selection, then rescuers should be more likely to risk their lives for younger than older biological relatives.  This is the case, with 40 younger vs. 6 older biological relatives rescued, but may be explainable in terms of the greater needs of younger relatives (usually young children) rather than greater willingness to take risks on the part of the rescuer.

While biological relatives rescue younger relatives far more often. than older relatives, the differences in age between rescued/rescuer are slight for the entire sample.  If younger persons were rescued more often, one could argue that the probability of being rescued was, to some degree, influenced by reproductive potential.  Instead, the mean age of rescuers and the rescued are similar but the variation across ages among those rescued is far greater.  The old as well as the young are rescued.  Need, not reproductive potential, may be the more important predictor of whether one will be rescued.

Reciprocal altruism theory (Trivers, 1971, 1985) is based on the belief that we behave toward others in altruistic ways because we believe that by doing so we increase the probability that others will behave altruistically toward us when we are in need.  In the same vein, we behave altruistically towards others because we have been recipients of altruism in the past.  Altruism would be expected to be more frequent in a milieu in which an individual's acts of altruism were known to the other I people in that milieu.  Clearly, it is in rural or small town America where one's own altruistic acts would be known to others and more likely to evoke reciprocity.  The vast preponderance of altruistic acts are performed by rural or small town residents, as would be expected from reciprocal altruism theory.

Daly and Wilson (1988) note that men who kill usually are men who have little to lose in terms of Darwinian fitness; they are less likely than others to pass on their genes.  Rescuers are not comparable to Daly's and Wilson's violent men; the rescuers both male and female were employed unless they were students or retired persons, and probably are stable and productive citizens.  However, they appear to be from far lower occupational levels than one would expect for the population at large.  Perhaps small town working class Americans and Canadians retain the belief that each of us is our brother's (or sister's) keeper to a greater degree than do other segments of the population.

As Carnegie stated in the introductory quotation (see p.1, Carnegie Commission, 1992), he recognized that there is no time to enter into elaborate calculations before engaging in a heroic act.  Even so, these data suggest that heroism is, to a degree, predictable from demographic information.  The present data are from 1989 to the present.  An analysis of the data from 1904 to the present probably would permit researchers to examine secular trends in heroism and bring empirical data to bear on the common belief that our culture has become more and more anomic over time.


Carnegie Hero Fund Commission: 1992 Annual report, Pittsburgh, PA 15222-2394.

Daly, M. & Wilson, M. Homicide (1988) (Textbook Binding). New York, Aldine De Gruyter.

Eagly, A.H., & Crowley, M. (1986). Gender and helping behavior: A meta-analytic analysis. of the social. psychological literature. Psychological Bulletin, 100, 283-308.

Ferguson, G. A. (1976). Statistical Analysis in Psychology and Education (4th edition) (Hardcover). New York, McGraw-Hill.

Hamilton, W. D. (1964) The genetical evolution of social behavior. I and II. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1, 1-52.

Johnson, R.C., Danko, G.P., Darvill,T.J., Bochner, S., Bowers, J.K., Huang, Y.H., Park, J.Y., Pecjak, V., Rahim, A.R.A., & Pennington, D. (1989). Cross cultural assessment of
altruism and its correlates. Personality and Individual Differences, 10, 855-868.

Minister of Supply and Service (1990). Canadian Gazetteer Atlas, Ottawa, MacMillan of Canada.

Rushton, J. P., Chrisjohn, R. D., & Fekken, G. C., (1981). The altruistic personality and the self-report altruism scale. Personality and Individual Differences, 2, 293-302.

Trivers, R. L., (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35-57.

Trivers, R. L., (1985). Social Evolution (Paperback). Menlo Park, CA, Benjamin Cummings Publishing.

U. S. Bureau of the Census Statistical Abstract of the United States (112th edition). Washington, D.C.

1. Dept. of Psychology and Behavioral Biology Laboratory, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI 96822.

2. I express my gratitude to the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, 2307 Oliver Building, 535 Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and to Walter Rutkowski, Executive Vice President of the fund, for providing me with the data analyzed herein.   [Back]

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