Last week, Cleveland resident Charles Ramsey was propelled to national fame when he saved the lives of three kidnapping victims while enjoying some McDonald's for lunch. And thanks to his subsequent freewheeling TV interview, the world also learned that Charles Ramsey is a total weirdo.
With the hair of a god.
Yes, Ramsey follows in the footsteps of Antoine "bed intruder" Dodson and a hatchet-wielding drifter named Kai, who rose to Internet stardom this past February after saving a California utility worker from a rampaging motorist claiming to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. But why is it that these strange citizens keep swooping into the fray like so many bat-shaped men? There's a reason -- and yes, it involves science.
#3. Eccentric People Take More Risks
Mind you, Ramsey wasn't the only Clevelander interviewed about the kidnapping. In fact, one of kidnapper Ariel Castro's other neighbors, Juan Perez, was also interviewed about the incident.
Unlike the loquacious Ramsey, Perez was nervous, tried to speak clearly and concisely, and -- when he heard screams coming from Castro's house several years ago -- had his sister call 911 rather than embark upon a one-man Hardy Boys adventure (which would presumably be titled The Hardy Boys in the Case of We Just Lost All Faith in Humankind).
In this situation, calling the cops was the rational response. But a 2008 study on World War II veterans found that the vets who were decorated for heroism also considered themselves to be risk-takers, or Type T personalities. This is caused by fewer dopamine-inhibiting receptors in the brain, something that also causes someone to be more impulsive (as well as less inhibited) in a new environment -- such as a live television interview.
The Washington Post / Getty
Ramsey, seen here explaining his unified theory of UFOs and the federal deficit to a radio show host.
So what happened in Cleveland last week? We learned of a horrific crime lifted straight from the 2003 South Korean crime drama Oldboy and then saw that the kidnapped women's savior was a wacky neighbor on par with Cosmo Kramer. Somehow, this makes sense.
#2. People Who Crave Attention Will Make Bigger Sacrifices
If there's one thing these weirdy-weirdos do, it's stick around long after the entire planet has acknowledged their weird heroics. Kai went on Jimmy Kimmel, and Antoine Dodson is still in the news. After all, they did a good deed, so why not soak up the good vibes, right?
Kid, you're the only drifter ever praised for doing something with a hatchet. Isn't that enough?
But it just so happens that the difference between surreptitiously calling 911 from a locked bathroom and uppercutting a burglar while belting out Europe's "Rock the Night" (a capella, natch) is actually tied to one's desire for the spotlight.
If Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that a hero is only worth the amount of times he's flown an undefusable nuclear bomb away into the horizon. Sacrifice is the ultimate act of the selfless idol. And as a 2012 study demonstrated, when male test subjects were put in a situation where sacrifice was required, the more they wanted to show off, the more likely they were to self-sacrifice.
"I WOULD DIE FOR ANY OF YOU!"
The conclusion is that ego and heroism kick in at the same time, thereby making the best heroes also the ones who are most willing to get their ridiculous faces turned into Internet memes until the sun snuffs out.
#1. Heroes Are More Likely to Creep You Out on the Bus
It's the modern boogeyman -- the public bus dweller. You know the guy. He's talkative, he's outgoing, he doesn't give a shit if you're wearing headphones, and he really, really wants to offer you a bite of the onion-and-sardine hoagie he has ferreted away in his trench coat pocket. He's a pain in the ass, right?
He'll also probably save your life one day.
Probably not today, though.
Why? Because the trait that makes a random person more disposed to approach another random person is also the trait that makes him more likely to do something heroic. And that trait is empathy. Fragrant, fish-scented empathy.
It's not even a choice -- their brains might very well be wired to do it. The key to what makes us more willing to don a cape and leap from rooftop to rooftop is the prefrontal cortex, which measures how closely we recognize others as being like ourselves.
Empathy Man is the only real hero.
The person who tends to see everyone as an extension of themselves -- i.e., the guy on the bus who would like to share his sandwich with the entire damn planet -- also tends to have more of the empathy required to jump in front of that selfsame bus if it were barreling toward your too-high-and-mighty-to-eat-a-free-sandwich keister. So swallow your pride (and those sardines). If that guy on the bus fails to live up to Sam the Eagle's rigorous personal standards, you can be sure he's here to help.