Three Americans on a Train to Paris: The Roots of Heroism

What enabled the three young Americans to attack and stop the well-armed man on the train from Amsterdam to Paris, most likely saving many lives, including their own? The man on the express train from Amsterdam to Paris had a number of weapons, but when Airman First Class Spenser Stone awoke from a deep sleep, what he saw was the AK-47 the man was holding. Stone said later it looked like the weapon wasn't working, and he was trying to charge his weapon. Stone was on a European vacation with Alek Skarlatos, a specialist in the Oregon National Guard who just returned from service in Afghanistan, and Anthony Sandler, the three of them friends since middle school.

Skarlatos hit Stone on the shoulder as Stone was waking up and said "let's go." Stone did go, tackled the man, pushed him down and held him on the ground, even though the man cut him with a box cutter. Skarlatos grabbed the AK-47 out of his hand. He had more weapons, and the three friends hit him and tied him up. Three other people also acted; one helping the three Americans, one earlier attacking the man in another railroad car and was shot by him, the role of the third one unclear. But I won't discuss the other people, since media reports gave little information about them.

A central influence leading a person to take action is a feeling of responsibility for others' welfare -- and presumably one's own. In a number of studies, my students and I found that people who feel more responsible for others' welfare help more when someone is in either physical distress, or in psychological distress. A feeling of responsibility can be the result either of the way parents socialized the child, or of experiences in life. Parents pointing out to children the consequences of their actions on other people increases empathy and responsibility. People who received medals from the Carnegie Hero Foundation for saving lives were more likely to report that their parents expected them to help. A feeling of responsibility can also be the result of circumstances, or of one's role. When a person in a group is randomly appointed to be a leader, as an emergency arises this is the person who is most likely to help. Medical doctors will feel more responsible when someone has a health problem, both because of their role in society and their skills.

Soldiers are trained to take responsibility and act in the face of danger. They also develop relevant skills. In addition to the motivation and skills to act, they are likely to develop decision-making capacity. Some people, even in face of very clear events -- in one study a man with a hand in a women's handbag, suddenly leaving the room as the other person entered -- have difficulty deciding what is happening. So soldiers are more likely to have the capacity to judge the meaning of dangerous events, have a feeling of responsibility, and relevant skills. When other people are present, each person may feel less responsible to act. This is less likely with people who have developed a personal disposition to feel responsible.

Courage is also highly relevant in facing of a man holding an AK-47. Research on courage has mostly been done with military personnel, for example, British soldiers whose task was to defuse bombs in Northern Ireland, and parachutists. The more and better training such soldiers had, the more courageous they were. Also, early successful experiences with their tasks increased courage. The training that American soldiers receive is likely to foster courage. Experiences with dangerous situations, as in Afghanistan, would contribute to courage and self-confidence in the face of danger. Also, people who join a volunteer army may have ingredients from the start that contribute to courage -- feeling less aroused, more calm, in the face of threatening events.

The power of people to influence each other is great. One person can define a situation as one in which action is needed, or focus responsibility on another. When I just began to study helping behavior, in the late 1960s, I was invited to comment on PBS on a documentary they just showed about real-life heroes. In one scene, people were standing in front of a burning house with a child inside, and they turned to a man apparently known for his courage and said "Are you going in?" He did and saved the child.

In a study where I told first graders that they are in charge, they were more likely to try to help when they heard sounds of distress from an adjoining room. In another study, two people worked on tasks in a room, one of whom was my confederate with instructions to say certain things -- different things in different experimental conditions -- they heard a crash and sounds of distress from the adjoining room. Depending on what they said, the other person helped as little as about 25 percent of the time or 100 percent of the time. When the confederate said that it sounds bad -- "you should go into the other room and I'll go and get the person in charge" -- and left the room through another door, the participants in the study went into the room with the distress sounds every time. On the train, Skarlatos said to Stone, "let's go," exerting an influence similar to those in the situations I just described.

Finally, having allies in responding to a dangerous situation gives people confidence, making it more likely they will act. In this case, the three friends were strong allies who knew that they can rely on each other. But when action is needed, a person can turn to strangers and recruit them as allies. Also, once one person begins to act, as Stone did, others often join. Understanding the influences that lead people to act -- or not act -- can help each of us maximize the likelihood that we, enlisting others as allies, take action when a need arises.

The three Americans have already received the Legion of Honor from the French President; the three others who have acted will receive it at a later time.