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What makes a hero? An explanation from psychology




From left : French President, Francois Hollande, U.S. National Guardsman from Roseburg, Oregon, Alek Skarlatos, U.S. Ambassador to France Jane D. Hartley, U.S. Airman Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento University in California, pose for photographers as they leave the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, after being awarded with the French Legion of Honor by French President, Francois Hollande, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. French President Francois Hollande and a bevy of officials are presenting the Americans with the prestigious Legion of Honor on Monday. The three American travelers say they relied on gut instinct and a close bond forged over years of friendship as they took down a heavily armed man on a passenger train speeding through Belgium. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)
From left : French President, Francois Hollande, U.S. National Guardsman from Roseburg, Oregon, Alek Skarlatos, U.S. Ambassador to France Jane D. Hartley, U.S. Airman Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento University in California, pose for photographers as they leave the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, after being awarded with the French Legion of Honor by French President, Francois Hollande, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. French President Francois Hollande and a bevy of officials are presenting the Americans with the prestigious Legion of Honor on Monday. The three American travelers say they relied on gut instinct and a close bond forged over years of friendship as they took down a heavily armed man on a passenger train speeding through Belgium. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)
Kamil Zihnioglu/AP

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The president of France awarded three Americans and a Brit with his nation's highest honor on Monday. 

The honor comes after the men subdued a heavily armed attacker on a high speed train carrying 500 passengers.

Throughout the world, these four are being revered as heroes - but what exactly makes a hero? David Rand is a professor of psychology, economics and management at Yale University. He is also one of the authors of a recent study of why people take extreme risks to save lives.

Heroes just do it

Rand says what separates a hero from everybody else is the impulse to not think before jumping into action.

"There's a lot of evidence that many people do have an impulse to help others and to be cooperative," he said. "But the issue is that if you're the kind of person that stops and thinks, then even if you have the impulse to help, you'll take a minute and you'll say, 'Well, should I do it?' And you'll say, 'Well, maybe I should go ahead and not do it.'"

Rand said that was the common thread among those in his study who performed heroic acts.

"Almost everyone said something along the lines of, 'I didn't think, I just acted,'" he said. "One of the things that happens when you stop and think and you deliberate, is you start coming up with rationalizations for why it would not be a good idea to act ... Once you stop and think, it's psychologically too late."

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above