Phillips, 53, of Underhill, Vt., is captain of the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton container ship carrying relief aid to Mombasa, Kenya. On Wednesday, the ship was attacked by Somali pirates. While the unarmed crew repelled the initial attack, Phillips reportedly prevented a bloody counterattack by the pirates by offering himself as a hostage.
Phillips' actions, while heroic, were also exceedingly dangerous -- and they also opened up serious questions when it comes to the natural human motivation of self preservation, said Dr. Charles Raison, assistant professor in the Mind-Body Program at the Emory University School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
"These stories, this tendency to do this sort of thing, it often surprises people from a scientific point of view," Raison said.
But, he added, "Some theorists say that this is one of the reasons that we as humans have emotions. It is one way to get humans to transcend the simple arithmetic of self interest."
Ben Sherwood, author of the bestselling book "The Survivors Club" and a former executive producer of ABC News' "Good Morning America," has interviewed survivors around the world, including hostages and prisoners of war. In his research, he has come across a phenomenon he has termed the "10-80-10" rule.
"Ten percent of us, in a crisis, will respond as leaders with clear heads, with purposefulness, and will do things to save ourselves and save others," he said. "Eighty percent of us will become bewildered. ... We freeze and we wait for someone to tell us what to do."
The final 10 percent will become self-destructive, he said. But the heartening news, he said, is that most of us at least have the potential to act in a heroic manner.
"An easygoing, calm, collected mind helps you be in that [top] 10 percent," he said. "The key is how to flip the switch from being in the 80 percent into the 10 percent."
"This ability to sometimes make a heroic sacrifice for one's fellow man is rather hardwired in human beings. Some people are not like this; in times of a crisis, they will sell everyone else downstream."
The following pages feature a few examples in recent years of heroes -- as well as those who have not acted so heroically.
Phillips likely knew there was a chance of running into pirates off the waters of Somalia. After all, there were 111 attacks in nearby waters in 2008, according to reporting by the Associated Press.
But even if Phillips knew of the risks, could he have guessed how well he would react when pirates attacked his vessel?
By the descriptions he's read, Sherwood said, Phillips could possibly fall into the profile of the natural survivor.
"He's been described by his friends and family as smart and easygoing," said Sherwood.
Yet, Sherwood points out that the crew had one of the most important advantages for dealing with a crisis situation: training.
The father of the second-in-command of the Maersk Alabama told the Associated Press that his son, Shane Murphy, went through anti-piracy tactics training before going into dangerous waters.