Boston Marathon Heroes Combine Risk and Generosity

Expert says courage means "being part of something larger than yourself."

ByABC News
April 16, 2013, 1:15 PM

April 17, 2013 — -- A man in a cowboy hat jumps the fence in the VIP stands and runs toward the chaos at the Boston Marathon to apply homemade tourniquets on severed limbs.

A Vietnam vet from the Bronx jumps into the New York City subway tracks to shield a man he has never met from an oncoming train.

A third-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., calms 14 frightened students in a locked bathroom, keeping them alive as gunfire erupts and kills 20 children.

WATCH: Heroes Emerge from Boston Marathon Bombing

Are heroes born or made? Even experts can't answer that question.

"We really don't know for sure why people put their lives on the line for other people," said Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Philadelphia's Temple University.

"It is the most mysterious act, in my view. How does someone get close to giving up their life for someone else they may not even know?" he asked. "It's so profound."

After two explosions erupted near Boston's Copley Square Monday, killing three people and injuring 175, ordinary citizens performed extraordinary deeds.

"It was like 911 all over again -- with front row seat," said John Mixon, a 60-year-old builder from Ogunquit, Maine, who jumped into action in the VIP stands at the finish line to tear down a fence and lift bleeding victims into wheelchairs.

"All the bodies were there and people were struggling, like, to climb over it -- they were kind of trapped with nowhere to go," Mixon said.

FULL COVERAGE of the Boston Marathon bombings.

His friend, Carlos Arredondo, sporting a cowboy hat in some of the tragedy's most iconic photos, had already jumped the fence to apply pressure to the hemorrhaging artery of a limbless man.

Those who risk their lives to help others fall into a category of heroism that Farley calls "big H," or big heroism.

"Small H," or small heroism, he added, are everyday good deeds -- "helping someone across the street."

"My favorite example [of small H] is Mr. Rogers," Farley said, referencing the late children's television show host.

In what could be called small H deeds at the marathon, runners sprinted across the finish line and on to Massachusetts General Hospital to give blood. Homeowners gave shelter to those who were separated from their families.

"The big H I am talking about is where the risks are high," he said. "But there are two particular ingredients in the recipe. ... The second one is the generosity factor."

A patient being treated for a leg injury at Tufts Medical Center told her doctors she was grateful to the Marine she knew as "Sgt. Tyler," who carried her to waiting ambulances.

"If you are risk averse, you are not going to run toward the explosion," said Farley. "You might be willing to dial 911, but the likelihood of you going into the maelstrom is extremely low."

Some studies show that the stress hormone cortisol makes the difference between being a coward or a hero. Yale scientists measured those levels and concluded those who remained calm had lower levels of the hormone.

The hormones adrenaline and dopamine seemed to flood pleasurably into the veins of risk-takers, according to Farley. But that does not explain heroic actions.

"You can get all that from great sex," he said. "You can get a rush climbing Mount Everest or on a supercoaster. There are high biological sensations."

"For the big H, you have got to have risk-taking and the generosity piece," he said.