Act Now, Pay Later

Why do people rush into burning buildings, dive into dangerous river rapids and confront violent criminals in a bid to save a fellow human being? We often hear stories about would-be rescuers who put their own safety at risk without hesitation.

A couple of years ago, while writing a Reader’s Digest story on the science of niceness, I interviewed a B.C. woman who almost got herself killed when she ran to save a mugging victim. (The thugs beat her viciously with a shopping bag full of soup cans.) Benita told me: “I didn’t think at all about what danger I was putting myself in. It was an automatic reaction. You just do it, and you don’t think about what the outcome could be to yourself.” The woman added, “Maybe that’s human nature.”

She may have been on to something. A group of researchers at Harvard University recently collected fresh evidence that when people make a quick decision to act, they tend to be altruistic. Only when they stop and think carefully about their choice are they less likely to behave unselfishly.

We have a natural instinct to cooperate because it has served our species well. So what’s the point of taking time over decisions, if it may make us meaner? The Harvard scientists point out that slow deliberation can be a good thing when we don’t all happen to have the same political or moral views. “When intuitions clash – when it’s the values of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – reasoning and reflection may be our best hope for reconciling our differences,” says social sciences professor Joshua Greene in a statement.

So there’s a place for careful thought, and there’s a place for knee-jerk reaction. If I’m ever trapped in quicksand, though, I hope the people within earshot don’t spend too much time dithering.

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