The Heroism of Women and Men
Selwyn W. Becker University of Chicago
Alice H. Eagly Northwestern University
Heroism consists of actions undertaken to help others,
despite the possibility that they may result in the helper’s
death or injury. The authors examine heroism by women
and men in 2 extremely dangerous settings: the emergency
situations in which Carnegie medalists rescued others and
the holocaust in which some non-Jews risked their lives to
rescue Jews. The authors also consider 3 risky but less
dangerous prosocial actions: living kidney donations, vol-
unteering for the Peace Corps, and volunteering for Doc-
tors of the World. Although the Carnegie medalists were
disproportionately men, the other actions yielded represen-
tations of women that were at least equal to and in most
cases higher than those of men. These ﬁndings have im-
portant implications for the psychology of heroism and of
he human propensity to commemorate heroes ap-
pears to be a universal feature of human culture.
Heroes are honored in ancient cave paintings and in
folklore and myth. Societies transmitted stories of heroism
in oral traditions and molded legends, folktales, and myths
into poems, epics, and eddas (Carlyle, 1891; Hook, 1943;
Klapp, 1948). Contemporary societies maintain the tradi-
tion of honoring heroes not only in literary works but also
in ﬁlm, television, and journalism. One striking feature of
the heroes who have achieved public recognition is that
they are almost exclusively male. The phenomenon that we
evaluate in this article is the resulting cultural consensus
that “The hero is undeniably he, the male of the human
species” (Lash, 1995, p. 5). To explore this prominence of
heroic men and the apparent infrequency of heroic women,
we deﬁne heroism and evaluate contexts in which heroic
behavior occurs more often in one sex
than the other. The
empirical evidence that we present consists of behavior that
arises from real-life decisions of men and women who have
faced different degrees of danger in a variety of situations.
Finally, we evaluate whether the position of men and
women in society has created differential access to achiev-
ing recognition and commemoration for one’s heroic acts.
In Western culture, the linking of heroism and mas-
culinity can be traced in myth and religion. Myths of the
creation of humans featured heroes who succeeded in
bringing forth humans or endowing them with the wisdom
to cope with their environments. Given the association of
women with procreation, it is not surprising that the heroes
of early creation myths of Western cultures included deities
of both sexes. Many goddesses such as Isis, Ishtar, Inanna,
Demeter, Cybele, and Cerridwen were portrayed as the
equals of gods and as possessing powerful natural forces of
fertility and creation (Monaghan, 1990; Stone, 1978).
Nonetheless, male deities became more prevalent over
time, and goddesses, to the extent that they continued to
exist, came to play subordinate roles. When monotheism
developed, there remained no possibility of intertwined
pantheons of male and female deities. Fueled by medieval
chivalric codes as well as shifts in religion, conceptions of
ideal male behavior in Western culture came to feature
courageous behavior in the service of others (Hearnshaw,
1928; Keen, 1984). In this article, we consider the extent to
which this cultural association of heroism with men and
masculinity is congruent with evidence of heroic behavior
in natural settings.
Definition of Heroism
To begin this analysis, we ﬁrst deﬁne heroism. Whereas
heroes and heroism are generally deﬁned in terms of cour-
age and risk of one’s life as well as nobility of purpose
(e.g., American Heritage Dictionary, 2003; Oxford English
Preparation of this article was supported by National Science Foundation
Grant SBR-9729449 to Alice H. Eagly. Authorship was determined al-
phabetically and does not reﬂect relative contributions.
We thank Claartje Vinkenburg, Marloes Van Engen, Pieter Inia,
Maaike Ligthart, and Kim Kasten for classifying the names of the Dutch
Righteous Among the Nations; Maria Zagatsky for classifying the names
of the French Righteous; Abigail Masory for assisting in counting the
names of the Dutch Righteous; Tim Baker for helping to obtain records
from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; Zbigniew Kominek
for helping to locate and translate Polish documents; June P. Farris for
helping to locate library materials in the Regenstein Library of the
University of Chicago; Carol Maraist, whose stimulating questions and
literature searches led Selwyn W. Becker to the database of the Righteous;
Peter Dembowski, who shared information on conditions in Poland during
the Nazi occupation; and John Archer, Daniel Batson, Janine Bosak, Anne
Campbell, Amanda Diekman, Paul Eastwick, Douglas Kenrick, Anne
Koenig, Melvin Lerner, Abigail Mitchell, Carmen Tanner, and Wendy
Wood for comments on a draft of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sel-
wyn W. Becker, Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago,
Chicago, IL 60637, or to Alice H. Eagly, Department of Psychology,
Northwestern University, 2029 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
In this article, the term the sexes denotes the grouping of people into
female and male categories. The terms sex differences and sex similarities
are applied to describe the results of comparing these two groups. The
term gender refers to the meanings that societies and individuals ascribe
to female and male categories. We do not intend to use these terms to give
priority to any class of causes that may underlie sex and gender effects.
Copyright 2004 by the American Psychological Association 0003-066X/04/$12.00
Vol. 59, No. 3, 163–178 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.59.3.163
Dictionary, 2003), these deﬁnitions do not clearly indicate
that it is the conjunction of risk taking and service to a
socially valued goal that yields heroic status. Yet, actions
that have both of these attributes are far more likely to yield
heroic status than actions that have only one attribute.
Thus, people who take risks merely for pleasure or to
attract attention, as in extreme sports, are not deemed
heroic, nor are people who serve valued social goals with-
out risk to their own life or health, as in community
volunteering. Consistent with our deﬁnition of heroism, the
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, which was established
by Andrew Carnegie (1907) to honor heroes, recognizes
the necessity of both risk and service to others in identify-
ing heroes as individuals who voluntarily risk or sacriﬁce
their life for others’ beneﬁt (Carnegie Hero Fund Commis-
sion, 2002). Consistent with this deﬁnition, actions recog-
nized as heroic are ordinarily performed voluntarily in the
sense that they are not coerced by external pressures or at
least go beyond the bounds of the behavior ordinarily
induced by external pressures, as in the case of military
heroism. In this article, we therefore consider as heroes
only individuals who choose to take risks on behalf of one
or more other people, despite the possibility of dying or
suffering serious physical consequences from these actions.
Heroism can be identiﬁed within the broader category
of prosocial or helping behaviors,
most of which do not
involve much risk to the helper. It is the acceptance of risk
to one’s life that calls for valor or courage and thus trans-
forms prosocial behavior into heroism. These actions, like
other prosocial behavior, need not be motivated by pure
altruism in Batson’s (1991) sense of “a motivational state
with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare” (p.
6). As we illustrate in this article, various motives could
underlie helping another person by means of acts danger-
ous to oneself. Before examining heroic actions of women
and men, we consider some insights about heroism that
emerge from psychological theory and research.
Psychological Theory and Research
Relevant to Heroism in Women and
Our requirement that heroism involves an unusual amount
of risk to one’s life or health in helping one or more other
people frames our discussion of two themes: the psychol-
ogy of risk taking and the psychology of manifesting em-
pathic concern with others’ welfare. We take into account
several bodies of theory and research that consider gender
in relation to each of these themes.
The Relation Between Gender and Risk
Consideration of risk taking as sex typed emerges mainly in
two theoretical traditions: analyses of the male gender role
and of the possible evolutionary origins of sex differences
in the propensity to take risks. Role theorists identify
societal inﬂuences that produce a socially constructed male
gender role, deﬁned as shared expectations about how men
do and should behave (Eagly, Wood, & Diekman, 2000).
Many analyses of the male gender role have included the
element of risk taking. For example, David and Brannon
(1976) maintained that the essential themes of masculinity
encompass the idealization of “reckless adventure, daring
exploits, and bold excesses of all kinds” (p. 30), and Levant
and Kopecky (1995) similarly included risk taking and the
ability to remain calm in the face of danger as aspects of the
male role. Thompson and Pleck’s (1986) questionnaire
measure of masculine ideology included items expressing
bravado and a taste for danger. Also, Mosher and Sirkin’s
(1984) effort to assess an extreme version of the male
gender role yielded a Hypermasculinity Inventory that in-
cluded a Danger As Exciting subscale. In support of such
analyses, numerous studies of gender stereotypes have
shown that the male gender role—or cultural stereotype—
includes attributes such as daring, adventurous, calm in a
crisis, willing to take risks, and stands up under pressure
(e.g., Broverman, Vogel, Broverman, Clarkson, & Rosen-
krantz, 1972; Diekman & Eagly, 2000). In a cross-cultural
study of gender stereotypes, J. E. Williams and Best (1990)
found that the traits of daring, adventurous, and courageous
were associated more with men than with women in all 25
nations that they examined.
Role theorists ascribe these qualities and other aspects
of gender roles to the distribution of women and men into
different speciﬁc roles in societies and to the tendency for
social perceivers to assume correspondence between the
behaviors demanded by roles and the dispositions of role
Given the varied deﬁnitions of the term altruism in psychology and
evolutionary biology (Sober, 2002), we favor the term prosocial behavior
to describe behaviors that beneﬁt others.
164 April 2004
occupants (e.g., Eagly et al., 2000). Because men are more
likely than women to occupy social roles that require taking
actions entailing risk to one’s life (e.g., warrior, ﬁre
ﬁghter), men are imputed to have the role-consistent char-
acteristic of the propensity to take risks. Men’s occupancy
of these roles derives primarily from their greater physical
prowess and the restrictions that women’s reproductive
activities place on women’s activities in many environ-
ments (Wood & Eagly, 2002). To prepare boys for these
adult role occupancies, they are socialized to take risks
(e.g., Goldstein, 2001). For example, mothers reported
slower and less frequent interventions and cautions directed
to sons than to daughters in situations of potential physical
injury (Morrongiello & Dawber, 2000). Moreover, men’s
positioning in society as eligible for rewards of power and
high status that have generally been inaccessible to women
may produce more striving among men for the public
recognition that allows them to rise in social hierarchies
(Baumeister & Sommer, 1997). For men but not women,
risks taken may yield large gains of status and power.
Evolutionary psychology offers a different perspec-
tive on risk taking by assuming that humans evolved in a
context in which ancestral men competed with one another
for sexual access to women. As a consequence, men, more
than women, learned to take risks, especially in the form of
dangerous competitive interactions with other men, pre-
sumably because these qualities increased ancestral men’s
access to the resources and status that enhanced their mat-
ing opportunities (Daly & Wilson, 1988). From this per-
spective, risk taking is an “evolved aspect of masculine
psychology as a result of sexual selection” (Wilson & Daly,
1985, p. 66). Men thus “engage in dangerous confronta-
tions and other forms of risky behaviour where the reward
is an elevation of status in the local community” (Camp-
bell, 1999, p. 204). Although the emphasis in such discus-
sions is often on men’s violence toward one another, the
reasoning of evolutionary psychologists also suggests that
a portion of men’s risk taking could be deployed in the
service of other members of their group. Such behavior
could yield rewards of increased power, status, and mating
Some evolutionary psychologists have argued not
only that men evolved a tendency to take risks but also that
women evolved a tendency to avoid them (Campbell,
1999). If mothers’ care was more crucial than fathers’ care
to the survival of offspring, women may have evolved a
strong concern with merely remaining alive because their
nurturing was crucial to increasing their children’s chances
to survive. By Campbell’s (1999) argument, women are
more avoidant of danger than men and generally more
fearful and anxious.
The quite diverse paradigms used in psychological
research designed to study risk taking have provided mod-
est support for theories predicting that men take more risks
than women. A large longitudinal study of adolescents’
tendencies to engage in risky or problem behaviors found
weak associations between gender and varied risky behav-
iors, r(1976) ⫽ .18, and thrill-seeking behaviors, r(1976) ⫽
.22 (Cooper, Wood, Orcutt, & Albino, 2003). In Byrnes,
Miller, and Schafer’s (1999) meta-analysis of research on
risk taking, men appeared to be slightly more likely than
women to engage in risky behavior (mean d ⫽ 0.13),
although this sex difference showed a secular trend of
decreasing magnitude over the years in which this research
was conducted. However, given ethical restraints on psy-
chological research, behavioral studies of risk taking con-
ducted in psychological laboratories do not encompass
situations in which loss of life or serious injury are genuine
possibilities. Nonetheless, using self-report or observa-
tional methods, investigators of risk taking have examined
some relatively dangerous behaviors—for example, drug
use, unprotected sex, risky driving behavior, and hazardous
recreational pursuits. Studies of some of these types of risk
taking produced larger effect sizes than studies in labora-
tory paradigms (Byrnes et al., 1999). As evidence for
men’s risk taking, evolutionary psychologists commonly
have pointed to the greater prevalence of violent behavior,
especially homicides, in men than in women as well as
men’s higher accident rates, especially among younger
men (Wilson & Daly, 1985). In the United States, men
currently account for 82.6% of arrests for violent crime
and 89.2% of arrests for murder and nonnegligent man-
slaughter (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2002, Table
42). Also, men’s death rate from accidents is 2.2 times that
of women, and their death rate from homicide is 3.3 times
that of women (National Center for Health Statistics, 2003,
It is notable that studies of risk taking rarely examined
behaviors that are prosocial in the sense that they beneﬁt
others. Also, perhaps reﬂecting infrequent observation of
situations involving extreme risk, most psychologists have
Alice H. Eagly
not taken into account the inﬂuence of physical prowess on
risk taking. Some dangerous actions are more safely exe-
cuted by people who are physically strong and trained in
the relevant physical skills (e.g., rescuing potential drown-
ing victims). Men’s greater size and upper-body strength
would contribute to their risk taking when physical de-
mands are high, although most risky actions would not be
selective in this manner.
The Relation Between Gender and
Manifesting Empathic Concern With Others
In contrast to psychologists’ attention to risk taking in
understanding male psychology, their consideration of em-
pathic concern with others has more often arisen in theories
of female psychology. For example, Gilligan (1982) main-
tained that the moral reasoning of women and men differs,
with women’s reasoning tending to display a logic based on
caring and responsibility to others, and men’s displaying a
logic based on rights and abstract principles. In addition,
many feminist scholars have emphasized that women, es-
pecially mothers, are expected to place the needs of others
before their own (e.g., Chodorow, 1978; Miller, 1976). In
concert with these analyses, the female gender role features
norms fostering nurturing and caring behavior. Numerous
studies of gender stereotypes (e.g., Diekman & Eagly,
2000; Spence & Helmreich, 1978) have shown that social
perceivers ascribe to women, more than to men, prosocial
qualities such as helpful, kind, compassionate, and devoted
to others. J. E. Williams and Best (1990) found that the
traits of helpful and kind were associated more with women
than men in 23 of the 25 nations that they examined. From
a social-role perspective, these traits are expected to be
stereotypic of women. Because women are more likely to
occupy social roles that require caring for others (e.g.,
mother, teacher), women are thought to have role-consis-
tent characteristics (Eagly et al., 2000) and are socialized to
embody them (e.g., Barry, Bacon, & Child, 1957; Whiting
& Whiting, 1975).
Although evolutionary theory offers varied accounts
of human prosocial behavior (i.e., altruism; see G. C.
Williams, 1999), a recent analysis, supported by physio-
logical and behavioral evidence, focused on women’s ten-
dency to behave supportively toward others in situations of
stress or danger. Thus, Taylor et al. (2000) maintained, like
most evolutionary psychologists, that women evolved to
maximize not only their own survival but also that of their
children, consistent with the greater parental investment of
women than men (Trivers, 1972). Taylor and her col-
leagues argued that women’s evolutionary history of re-
sponsibility for children’s welfare led not only to the avoid-
ance of risk emphasized by Campbell (1999) but also to the
development by women of a “tend and befriend” response
to stress (p. 411). By this argument, women’s actions in
stressful situations, facilitated by oxytocin and female re-
productive hormones, focus on protection of their offspring
from harm and afﬁliation with others that reduces risk.
Women’s prosocial concern with others could thereby de-
rive from an evolved disposition fostering supportive be-
havior toward them.
Empirical evidence consistent with the cultural stereo-
type of women as manifesting empathic concern for others
emerges from studies of social values and attitudes, per-
sonality traits, moral reasoning, close relationships, and
community volunteering. The social values of young
women in the United States reﬂect greater concern with and
responsibility for others’ well-being than do the values of
young men (Beutel & Marini, 1995), and women’s atti-
tudes on social and political issues suggest greater social
compassion (Eagly, Diekman, Johannesen-Schmidt, &
Koenig, 2003). In a meta-analysis of research examining
sex differences and similarities in personality traits, women
manifested higher levels than men of tender-mindedness
and nurturant concern with others (mean d ⫽ –0.75; Fein-
gold, 1994). Gilligan’s (1982) claims about the caring,
relational emphasis of women’s moral reasoning have re-
ceived modest empirical conﬁrmation in Jaffee and Hyde’s
(2000) meta-analytic integration of estimates of the care
orientation (mean d ⫽ 0.28). In research on friendship,
women, more than men, tend to be relatively cooperative,
intimate, and emotionally supportive (see Cross & Madson,
1997; Reis, 1998), and people typically prefer to receive
emotional support from women (Burleson, 2002). In addi-
tion, women in the United States are more likely than men
to manifest concern for others as a by-product of their
greater representation in organizational volunteer roles
(Volunteering in the United States, 2002) and in family and
occupational roles that require caring for others (Cancian &
Oliker, 2000). Despite these ﬁndings, some researchers
have found that men and women have similar emotional
responses to others’ distress when assessed by physiolog-
ical and unobtrusive measures (Eisenberg & Lennon, 1983)
and similar emotional responses more generally (Robinson
& Clore, 2002). Nonetheless, women, more than men,
express many types of concern for others in their beliefs,
attitudes, and overt behavior. It is of course overt behavior
that provides evidence for the identiﬁcation of heroes.
Heroism and Gender
Our review of research on the behavioral tendencies that
we presume are most important to heroism—taking risks
and manifesting empathic concern with others’ welfare—
shows that they are gender stereotypical and somewhat sex
typed in varied empirical assessments. Assumptions re-
garding the roots of the sex differences in these tendencies
are quite different in theories emphasizing social roles and
those emphasizing evolved dispositions. Whatever the or-
igins of these tendencies, if heroism requires both risk
taking and the behavioral expression of concern for others,
it might be reasonable to expect that heroic behavior is
supremely androgynous. Although the physical demands of
some heroic acts and the exclusion of women from social
roles and social contexts might depress female participa-
tion, many heroic acts would not reﬂect these restrictions.
Without such restrictions, the association of risk taking
with cultural deﬁnitions of masculinity and of empathic
166 April 2004
concern for others with cultural deﬁnitions of femininity
would lead to the prediction that heroic behavior is not
distinctively associated with either sex.
Such possibilities have not been investigated because
of the limitations of conventional research methods. De-
spite the popularity of research on bystander intervention in
emergency situations (e.g., Latane´ & Darley, 1970), its
implications for heroism are limited because the dangers
that the participants faced did not threaten them with death
or physical injury. Therefore, to study heroic behaviors, we
sought data from situations in which people voluntarily
exposed themselves to life- or injury-threatening dangers in
attempting to help others avoid some calamity. To study
the behavior of both sexes, we limit this analysis to situa-
tions in which men and women had relatively equal oppor-
tunity to provide such help and omit settings that generally
exclude women (e.g., military battles). Because the settings
that meet our requirements vary in degree of danger, we
place most emphasis on two data sets that document proso-
cial behavior that entailed a substantial risk of death. We
thus ﬁrst consider the recipients of the Carnegie Hero
Medal, individuals honored for risking their lives by res-
cuing others in situations such as ﬁres and potential
drownings. We then evaluate individuals honored as the
Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jewish individuals des-
ignated as having helped Jews avoid being killed by the
Nazis during World War II. We also consider three other
categories of individuals who performed prosocial acts
involving considerable physical risk, albeit little likelihood
of death: living kidney donors, Peace Corps volunteers, and
Doctors of the World overseas volunteers.
Study of these ﬁve groups permits us to examine the
ideas that heroism is practiced by women as well as men
but that, depending on the speciﬁcs of heroic acts and their
situational context, one sex may participate more than the
other. By considering a range of naturally occurring phe-
nomena that satisfy to differing degrees the deﬁnition of
heroism, we also respond to Tinbergen’s (1963) complaint
that psychologists neglect to study phenomena in varied
natural environments before they fashion generalizations
that they enshrine in their theories.
Extremely Dangerous Heroic Acts
Carnegie Hero Medal Recipients
Since 1904, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission has
awarded medals, scholarships, and ﬁnancial assistance to
heroes (and their families) whose heroic acts took place in
the United States or Canada. Requirements for designation
as a Carnegie hero are “a civilian who voluntarily risks his
or her own life, knowingly, to an extraordinary degree
while saving or attempting to save the life of another
person” (Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, 2002, Require-
ments section, ¶ 1). Not eligible are
those whose duties in following their regular vocations require
them to perform such acts, unless the rescues are clearly beyond
the line of duty; and members of the immediate family, except in
cases of outstanding heroism where the rescuer loses his or her
life or is severely injured. Members of the armed services and
children considered by the Commission to be too young to
comprehend the risks involved are also ineligible for consider-
ation. (Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, 2002, Responsibility
section, ¶ 3)
Because the awards ordinarily exclude rescuers of family
members, the rescued person is often a stranger. Heroism
of this type occurs in various situations, many of which are
outside of the workplace or home. Rescuers thus observe
unexpected emergency situations, often while carrying out
a leisure pursuit or merely going from place to place.
Typical acts that merit Carnegie Hero Medals include
saving people from ﬁres, drowning, attacks by animals,
assaults by criminals, electrocution, and suffocation
(Wooster, 2000). Among the awards made since 1994, 20%
were posthumous, ordinarily because of the death of the
honored individual in carrying out the act of heroism (J.
Dooley, Investigations Manager of the Carnegie Hero Fund
Commission, personal communication, October 17, 2002).
This high mortality provides a measure of the degree of risk
associated with the activities recognized as heroic by the
commission. No data are available concerning injuries suf-
fered by rescuers.
As of the end of April 2003, there had been 8.9%
women among 8,706 medalists (W. F. Rutkowsky, Exec-
utive Director of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission,
personal communication, May 23, 2003).
As with the
other data sets presented in this article, we compare this sex
distribution with the baseline percentage of women and
men. For the Carnegie medalists, this baseline cannot be
exactly established because it is not certain that women and
men were equally likely to occupy the settings in which the
relevant dangers occurred. However, given that the major-
ity of rescues have involved saving people from ﬁres and
drowning (Lay, Allen, & Kassirer, 1974; Wooster, 2000),
the settings in which emergencies occurred would have
included many homes and recreational sites, where women
would have been well represented. Regardless of whether
the correct baseline percentage of women is 50.0% or some
smaller percentage such as 30.0% or 40.0%, the 8.9% of
women among the medalists falls signiﬁcantly below any
reasonable assumption about a baseline (ps ⬍ .001).
form of heroism is thus strongly male dominated.
Although we cannot determine whether the selections
by the Carnegie Hero Commission have been nondiscrim-
inatory, Carnegie’s (1907) explicit instruction to include
women as heroes suggests a norm of fairness. The process
by which the commission awards medals consists of re-
ceiving approximately 4,000 news articles annually from a
Our request to the Carnegie Hero Commission to provide us with
yearly statistics yielded data from 1986 through 2001, which showed
some variability in the proportion of heroes who were men but showed no
secular trend (W. F. Rutkowski, personal communication, March 5, 2003).
Eagly and Crowley (1986) reported 616 women (or 8.9%) among 6,955
All p values reported in this article were computed by the normal
approximation to the binominal test, two-tailed (Kanji, 1993).
clipping service and then choosing as nominees those cases
that “appear to have award potential” (W. F. Rutkowski,
personal communication, February 20, 2003). Although
lack of bias against women on the part of journalists and
the clipping service cannot be assured, incidents involving
heroic women probably were more newsworthy and thus
more likely to come to the attention of the commission than
those involving heroic men, given the apparent rarity of
women among such heroes. A committee then evaluates
these nominees and chooses a portion of them for awards.
For example, in 1999, among the 729 men who were
nominated, 77 (or 10.6%) received awards, and among the
89 women who were nominated, 10 (or 11.2%) received
awards (W. F. Rutkowski, personal communication, Feb-
ruary 19, 2003).
Conﬁrmation that the type of acts identiﬁed as heroic
by the Carnegie Hero Commission are male dominated
comes from additional studies. Speciﬁcally, Huston, Rug-
giero, Conner, and Geis (1981) conducted an interview
study of 32 people who intervened in dangerous criminal
events such as muggings, bank holdups, and armed rob-
beries. Because their sample was drawn from individuals
seeking compensation under California’s Good Samaritan
statute that provides compensation for losses to people who
intervene in crimes, it is not surprising that 27 of the 32 had
been injured as a consequence of their involvement. Con-
ﬁrming the ﬁndings from the Carnegie heroes, only 3.19%
of these interveners were female. Lay et al. (1974) exam-
ined data on Toronto recipients of Civilian Citations, who
are citizens recognized for spontaneously aiding the police
force. Among those who assisted the victim directly, as-
sisted a police ofﬁcer, or chased the offender, 12.0% were
female. However, among those who notiﬁed the police,
presumably a much less dangerous act, 41.7% were female.
To provide information about the characteristics of
individuals who heroically intervene, Huston et al. (1981)
included a control group of noninterveners matched for
age, sex, education, and ethnic background. The interven-
ers exceeded the control participants in physical size and
past training to deal with crimes and emergencies. In ad-
dition, they were more likely to describe themselves as
strong, aggressive, principled, and emotional.
al. argued that such crime interveners “act out of a sense of
capability founded on training experiences and rooted in
personal strength” (p. 14).
Physical prowess and relevant skills no doubt increase
the likelihood of performing such heroic acts. These acts
are almost always carried out immediately after the rescuer
notices the potentially catastrophic situation, which typi-
cally involves a stranger as the potential victim (Johnson,
1996). For the rescuers, the act of helping can seem quite
spontaneous. For example, a man who rescued a woman
from a burning car said, “I didn’t have time to think, I just
wanted to get her out of there” and “I’m glad the adrenaline
was kicking in, because if I had time to think, I might have
been too scared” (McCann, 2002, Section 2, p. 3). This
propensity for immediate action in extreme situations may
be more typical of men, as suggested by Zuckerman and
Kuhlman’s (2000) demonstration that the greater risk tak-
ing of men than women was mediated by a male sex-typed
personality trait known as impulsive sensation seeking
(Zuckerman, Kuhlman, Joireman, Teta, & Kraft, 1993).
Although after the emergency Carnegie medalists often
described their motivation as reﬂecting their religious and
ethical principles as well as empathic concern for the
victim’s plight (Wooster, 2000), it is unclear how much
such postevent rationales reﬂect the motives of these res-
cuers at the time of their intervention.
In summary, the research that we have reviewed
shows that direct physical intervention to rescue victims in
very dangerous emergency situations such as ﬁres, poten-
tial drownings, and violent crime situations are highly male
dominated when undertaken spontaneously by people who
are not in roles such as ﬁre ﬁghter or law enforcement
ofﬁcer that require such actions. Underlying such behavior
may be physical prowess, emergency training, and a readi-
ness for very quick action in extreme situations.
Righteous Among the Nations
The Righteous Among the Nations are non-Jews who
risked their lives in order to save Jews during the Nazi
holocaust. The data consist of those who are listed in the
Index to Righteous Gentiles Registry of Yad Vashem
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2003). Eligi-
bility for this list is deﬁned as follows:
When data on hand clearly demonstrates that a non-Jewish person
risked his (or her) life, freedom, and safety in order to rescue one
or several Jews from the threat of death or deportation to death
camps without exacting in advance monetary compensation, this
qualiﬁes the person in question for serious consideration to be
awarded the “Righteous Among the Nations” title. This applies
equally to rescuers who have since passed away. (United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2003, p. 2)
Evidence from the rescued person(s) is an almost in-
dispensable condition for this recognition. Honored indi-
viduals receive a medal, a certiﬁcate of honor, and the
addition of their name to the Wall of Honor in the Garden
of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (Yad
The risks associated with rescuing or attempting to
rescue Jews were considerable. We are especially con-
cerned with conditions in Poland, the Netherlands, and
France, which yielded the largest numbers of Righteous
Among the Nations. In occupied Poland, those who helped
Jews in any way were ofﬁcially subject to execution, as
stated in the following proclamation by the German district
governor of Warsaw, Ludwig Fischer:
Concerning the Death Penalty for Illegally Leaving Jewish Res-
idential Districts . . . Any Jew who illegally leaves the designated
residential district will be punished by death. Anyone who delib-
This self-perception of these interveners as emotional may refer to
their ability to become emotionally activated by events because rescuing
itself often demands control over the overt expression of emotions (see
168 April 2004
erately offers refuge to such Jews or who aids them in any other
manner . . . will be subject to the same punishment. (Righteous
Gentiles, 2002, The Penalty section [homepage])
In addition, the Nazis offered cash bounties in Poland
for informing on hidden Jews and their rescuers (S. P.
Oliner & Oliner, 1988). Accounts of Nazis murdering Poles
ski, 1969; Gilbert, 2003). Estimates are that “thousands of
Poles were executed or died in concentration camps for
trying to help Jews” (Baron, 1988, p. 29). In some cases,
the acts of assistance that resulted in a helper’s execution
were minor, such as giving a drink of water or selling bread
to a Jew (Bartoszewski & Lewin, 1969). Although other
occupied countries did not have ofﬁcial death penalties for
helping Jews, people from many nations were executed for
helping Jews and other fugitives from the Nazis. Such
executions were apparently quite numerous in the Nether-
lands as well as in Poland (Baron, 1988; Sijes, 1977).
Conditions in France were mixed, with more resistance
from the non-Jewish population, more opportunities to ﬂee
to countries not under German control, and a considerably
higher survival rate of Jews (Baron, 1988). All in all,
becoming a rescuer of Jews during the Nazi occupation was
dangerous; such actions qualify as heroism, even though
we cannot determine the proportion of rescuers who were
killed because of their actions.
It is obvious that many individuals who would meet
the deﬁnition of Righteous Among the Nations are not so
designated because they were caught by the Nazis and in
some cases executed along with the Jews whom they at-
tempted to save. Countless other rescuers remained uniden-
tiﬁed because the Jews whom they helped did not survive
or surviving Jews were unable to identify them. Conse-
quently, the data consist of the names of those non-Jewish
individuals who helped Jews survive and were nominated
by the survivors and eventually designated as Righteous
Among the Nations. The registry of the rescuers contains
names from many countries, but only those from Poland,
the Netherlands, and France, the countries with the largest
number of Righteous Among the Nations, are analyzed
here. Among the 20,205 Righteous Among the Nations
identiﬁed as of January 1, 2004, Poland accounts for
28.7%, the Netherlands for 22.7%, and France for 11.7%
(Yad Vashem, 2004).
Classification of the Righteous Among the
Nations by sex. Our task was to count the number of
men and women on the list provided by the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum (2003) in Washington, DC.
In addition to names of individuals, the list frequently
identiﬁes married couples or families—for example, Jerzy
and Paulina Filipowski with two sons and one daughter. In
such cases, Jerzy and Paulina were counted as one man and
one woman, and their children were excluded from the
count because it is unlikely that they were critical in de-
ciding to rescue the Jews. Children were counted, however,
in those cases in which they were also adults, as identiﬁed
by a child being listed with a spouse or a daughter with a
married surname. However, counting both members of the
listed couples as Righteous Among the Nations might not
reﬂect their equal partnership in the decision, although the
survivors presumably would not have identiﬁed both as
Righteous Among the Nations if only one person partici-
pated. Nonetheless, to eliminate the ambiguity of the un-
known division of responsibility in married couples, we
also present the numbers of men and women who were not
listed as married couples. When siblings appeared alone on
the list (an infrequent event), all were counted because they
were assumed to be adults who cooperated in rescuing
Jews. Persons identiﬁed as clergy (and wives of clergy)
were excluded because they may have been acting under
the constraints of their role rather than according to their
own initiative. We applied this method of counting to the
lists from the three countries.
The Polish language makes identiﬁcation of male and
female names relatively unequivocal. Female names end in
a, both surname and given name, although married wom-
en’s surnames appear in the male form. Thus, Ewa, married
to Jan Tarnowski is Mrs. Ewa Tarnowski, but if unmarried
or widowed she is Ewa Tarnowska. Given the simplicity of
classifying Polish names by sex, this task was carried out
by Selwyn W. Becker as well as independently by an
The list of Dutch names was examined by three native
Dutch and Frisian speakers, who were aware of the re-
search question, and by two native Dutch speakers naive to
the research topic. The naive raters agreed on 99% of the
male–female identiﬁcations. After a meeting of the raters,
100% agreement was reached.
A graduate student at the University of Chicago clas-
siﬁed the French names. She had attended a French-speak-
ing school for 9 years, earned a bilingual international
baccalaureate degree, and tutored French for 7 years.
Whenever she had any doubt about the identiﬁcation of a
name as male or female, she sought conﬁrmation from two
Web sites containing lists of male and female French
names, www.kabalarians.com and www.behindthename
.com/nmc/fre.html. Her classiﬁcations were checked by
Selwyn W. Becker.
Determination of population baselines.
To determine whether the sexes were disproportionately
represented among the Righteous Among the Nations, we
compared the percentages of female Righteous Among the
Nations with the population baselines of women. If women
differed from this baseline, men differed from the male
baseline as well. To estimate these baselines, we consulted
the population statistics for the year closest to 1940
(League of Nations, 1940–1941). From the appropriate
tables, we determined the number of men and women in
each country who were at least 20 years old. From these
numbers, we subtracted the number of Jews in each country
estimated to be at least 20 years old. We then subtracted the
following groups who were absent during at least part of
World War II: (a) male and female voluntary and forced
laborers who worked in the German Reich (Herbert, 1985/
1997) and (b) prisoners of war (assumed to be male;
Herbert, 1985/1997). In the case of Poland, we also sub-
tracted the following groups, who were assumed to be male
(Curtis, 1994; Piesowicz, 1988): (a) soldiers and govern-
ment ofﬁcials who ﬂed to Romania, (b) ofﬁcers executed
by the Russians, and (c) soldiers serving in the German and
For France, we also subtracted commu-
nists and members of the International Brigade, who were
imprisoned by the Vichy government, as well as members
of the Free French military forces, all assumed to be male
(Jackson, 2001). This process yielded percentages of
women of 57.0% for Poland, 52.9% for the Netherlands,
and 55.6% for France.
Percentages of female and male Righ-
teous Among the Nations in relation to popu-
lation baselines. Table 1 presents the numbers and
proportions of men and women among the Righteous
Among the Nations in Poland, the Netherlands, and France,
along with the population baselines. When all men and
women were considered, the proportion of women did not
differ from the baseline proportion of women in Poland, the
Netherlands, or France. However, when only those indi-
viduals who were not listed as couples were considered, the
proportion of women was signiﬁcantly greater than the
baseline proportion of women in each nation.
Characteristics of the Righteous Among
the Nations. These data show that rescuing Jews was
certainly not a male-dominated act and in fact was some-
what female dominated when married couples were ex-
cluded from the counts. To provide insight into the char-
acteristics and motivations of holocaust rescuers, S. P.
Oliner and Oliner (1988) conducted a study that involved
interviews of 406 authenticated rescuers and 126 nonres-
cuers who had lived in Nazi-occupied Europe during World
War II. Rescued survivors were also interviewed. Ethical
and humanitarian justiﬁcations for acting were given by the
great majority of the rescuers, and the most important of
these was an “ethic of care and compassion” (S. P. Oliner,
2002, p. 125). When asked to summarize the main reasons
for their rescuing, 86.5% of the rescuers gave an ethical
rationale, primarily having to do with care and compassion,
and 82.8% of the rescued survivors similarly ascribed
ethical motives to their rescuers (S. P. Oliner & Oliner,
1988, Table 6.2, p. 287). Drawing from interviews and
historical sources, Gilbert (2003) similarly emphasized the
ethical rationales provided by holocaust rescuers. He par-
ticularly noted that describing oneself as doing what any
“decent person” would do “was almost universal among
rescuers” (p. 438).
Rescuers’ explanations of their actions
thus included statements such as “Our religion says we are
our brother’s keepers” and “I sensed I had in front of me
human beings who were hunted down like wild animals.
This aroused a feeling of brotherhood with the desire to
help” (S. P. Oliner, 2002, p. 125). This sense of shared
humanity with the persecuted Jews appears to have been
critical to decisions to help, which were apparently often
quite spontaneous (Monroe, 1996, 2002).
The prevalence of ethically guided care and compas-
sion among rescuers is not surprising, given that they
generally formed relationships of shorter or longer duration
For Poland, we did not subtract two groups of unknown sex
distribution that likely included substantial numbers of women: people
imprisoned in Poland and people deported to Russia (Piesowicz, 1988).
Such statements are consistent with the general tendency for people
to underestimate the value of the help they provide (the “self-effacing
modesty bias”; McGuire, 2003, p. 331).
Numbers of Righteous; Percentages of Women; and Population Baselines of Women in Poland, the Netherlands,
Numbers and percentages of Righteous and comparisons with baselines
Poland Netherlands France
Counts of Righteous
Number of couples 1,260 1,569 529
Number of women, excluding couples 1,362 449 411
Number of men, excluding couples 800 336 269
Percentage of women in total sample 56.0 51.4 54.1
Percentage of women, excluding couples 63.0 57.2 60.4
Comparisons of Righteous with population baselines
Baseline population percentage of women 57.0 52.9 55.6
p for comparison of women in total sample with baseline .17 .07 .21
p for comparison of women, excluding couples, with baseline ⬍ .001 .02 .01
Note. Righteous ⫽ Righteous Among the Nations.
170 April 2004
with the rescued Jews, as they hid them, fed them, and in
some cases arranged for their escape. Moreover, consider-
able experimental research supports the claim that em-
pathic emotion can evoke altruistic motivation and helpful
action (Batson, 2002). In a further study of S. P. Oliner and
Oliner’s (1988) data, Anderson (1993) qualitatively ana-
lyzed the records from 13 male and 27 female rescuers and
found that this caring, relational orientation was a more
prevalent rationale for rescuing among the women than
among the men. The strong representation of women
among the Righteous Among the Nations thus appeared in
a situation that lends itself to the formation of compassion-
ate human relationships, albeit relationships that generally
put rescuers’ own lives at risk. Consistent with this analy-
sis, the Hebrew word used to describe the Righteous
Among the Nations is Chasidim, which can be translated as
“those who act lovingly” or act with “loving kindness”
(Rabbi D. M. Rosenberg, personal communication, Febru-
ary 18, 2003). Critical, though, in becoming a holocaust
rescuer was the ability to direct care and compassion to
people who differed ethnically and religiously from one’s
own group (P. M. Oliner, Oliner, & Gruber, 1991).
Other Heroic Acts
People engage in somewhat dangerous prosocial behavior
in many other circumstances that are risky but less danger-
ous than those faced by Carnegie medalists and the Righ-
teous Among the Nations. We were able to obtain relevant
data on three such actions: donating one’s kidney to an-
other individual, volunteering for service with the Peace
Corps, and volunteering for overseas duty with Doctors of
the World. Although the death rates are low in these
situations, the possibility of serious physical consequences
accompanies each of these activities.
Living Kidney Donors
Live kidney donation is far less dangerous than the harbor-
ing of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Europe or the
rescuing acts of Carnegie heroes. However, most people
are fearful of pain and possible medical complications
following kidney donation even though they report them-
selves willing to donate to a close relative (e.g., Boulware
et al., 2002). Consistent with these fears, donors typically
reported major postoperative pain (e.g., Duque, Loughlin,
& Kumar, 1999). Although most studies suggest few seri-
ous medical complications (e.g., less than 0.30%; Cecka,
2000), the overall rate of minor and major complications is
higher (e.g., 8.00%; Cecka, 2000). The length of time
required for donors to return to their prior state of health
depends on the invasiveness of surgical procedures and can
be up to 2 to 3 months (Fehrman-Ekholm, Duner, Brink,
Tyden, & Elinder, 2001). It is perhaps because of these
consequences and people’s fears of them that the designers
of the opening Web page of the United Network for Organ
Sharing (2004b) included the statement that “organ donors
Data concerning deaths of donors show very low
mortality (less than 0.01% during recent years and 0.03%
in earlier surveys; Cecka, 2000). Most long-term follow-
ups of donors have found few health consequences except
for a very small increase in proteinuria (elevated protein
levels in the urine) that generally has no clinical conse-
quences (e.g., Goldfarb et al., 2001). Nonetheless, a study
of all living donors registered in the relevant United States
database (United Network for Organ Sharing, 2004a) found
that 56 donors were subsequently listed for cadaveric kid-
ney transplantation, suggesting long-term vulnerability to
renal failure in some individuals (Ellison, McBride,
Taranto, Delmonico, & Kauffman, 2002). However, this
number translates into a rate for end-stage renal disease of
0.04%, which is very close to the 0.03% rate in the general
U.S. population. Nonetheless, because kidney donors are
screened for good health and excellent kidney function,
end-stage renal disease should be less common in donors
than the general population if the loss of a kidney had no
long-term health consequences.
We calculated the proportions of kidney donations by
women and men from data on live organ donations in the
United States between 1988 and 2004 archived in the
transplantation database of the Organ Procurement and
Transplantation Network of the United Network for Organ
Sharing (2004a). In all, the database had recorded 60,259
live kidney donations, 34,582 by women and 25,676 by
men. Compared with the U.S. population of 50.9% female
(U.S. Census Bureau, 2002), the percentage of kidneys
donated by women, 57.4%, exceeded what would be ex-
pected by chance (p ⬍ .001). This preponderance of
women occurred as well in each of the individual years.
Moreover, for living donations of all organs, the percentage
of women was 57.0%, although 95.7% of organ donations
were of the kidney. We also determined, with the help of
Analyst C. B. Tolleris of the United Network for Organ
Sharing, that the proportion of female kidney donors was
unrelated to the age of the recipients.
These higher rates of donating a kidney among
women than men have been extensively documented in the
medical literature (e.g., Biller-Andorno, 2002). Among in-
dividuals who have no genetic family relationship (only 5%
of live donations in 1997; Cecka, 2000), women-to-men
transfers have been especially common (Kayler et al.,
2002). Contributing to this excess of women among unre-
lated donors is the substantial disproportion of women-to-
men donations between spouses (69% of spousal donations
in Kayler et al., 2002; 90% in D. Zimmerman, Donnelly,
Miller, Stewart, & Albert, 2000). In general, men are more
likely than women to be the recipients of live kidney
donations (e.g., Biller-Andorno, 2002), even when the data
are controlled for a wide range of patient variables (Kayler
et al., 2002).
The larger number of female than male donors, espe-
cially among spouses, is not accounted for by biological
factors. The slightly higher incidence of end-stage renal
disease among men (53.3% male in the United States from
1995 to 2001; United States Renal Data System, 2002)
would have trivial impact on the numbers of men and
women available as potential donors. Moreover, when fam-
ily members were medically evaluated as potential donors,
men and women were deemed eligible at similar rates, but
among the acceptable donors a higher percentage of
women (28.3%) than men (20.3%) became donors (D.
Zimmerman et al., 2000). Because husbands are somewhat
more likely to be employed full-time and on the average
have higher income than their wives, economic pressures
could be one factor accounting for these ﬁndings. Yet,
attitudinal sex differences appeared important as well in an
interview study of kidney donors for transplant patients at
the University of Minnesota Hospitals (Simmons, Klein, &
Simmons, 1977). In a sample of donors who were biolog-
ically related to their recipients, men were more ambivalent
than women about their donation and had more negative
feelings after the event. Because the women, more than the
men, viewed their donation as an aspect of their family
obligations, the researchers suggested that women’s family
role includes not only self-sacriﬁce but also caretaking of
ill family members. Whatever the underlying motivations
of living kidney donors, their decisions to donate appear to
reﬂect reasoned analysis, in view of the successful predic-
tion of donation by attitude–behavior models that assume
that individuals analyze the consequences of their antici-
pated actions (Borgida, Conner, & Manteufel, 1992).
In summary, women have somewhat predominated
among kidney donors. Although the act of donation entails
little risk of death, it has considerable consequences in
terms of pain and short-term disability and a small risk of
longer term morbidity.
Peace Corps Volunteers
The Peace Corps, established by executive order of Presi-
dent John Kennedy in 1961, places volunteers from the
United States in a wide range of countries, with the goals of
helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need
for trained men and women; helping promote a better understand-
ing of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and helping
promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of
Americans. (Peace Corps, 2004a)
This service does not constitute a job in the ordinary sense
because tours of duty are time limited and are compensated
not by a salary but by a stipend that allows volunteers to
live at the same level as the people they serve.
Service as a Peace Corps volunteer may present less
danger than the other activities we have reviewed, but this
role is not entirely safe. Within the 137 countries that have
been served by a total of 170,000 volunteers and trainees
are many locations troubled by wars and internal unrest as
well as by poverty, famine, and limited access to medical
care. Suggestive of nontrivial dangers, a study by the U.S.
General Accounting Ofﬁce (2002) investigated major non-
sexual physical assaults against volunteers and reported
that the rate had risen from 9 per 1,000 volunteer years in
1991–1993 to 17 per 1,000 volunteer years in 1998–2000.
Sexual assaults against female volunteers showed no clear
trend over time, with 8 major assaults and 11 minor as-
saults per 1,000 female volunteer years reported for 2000.
These statistics represent only ofﬁcially reported incidents,
and the actual amount of violence against volunteers may
be considerably higher (“Attacks on Peace Corps,” 2002).
Although deaths have been rare, Peace Corps volun-
teers have died in service. In the entire history of the Peace
Corps, 20 volunteers have been victims of homicide (Peace
Corps, 2004c). In addition, deaths have resulted from other
causes. For example, the year 1998 included, in addition to
four homicides (Peace Corps, 2004c), two disappearances
from the Great Barrier Reef with no reappearance (Smith,
1998) and one auto accident in Namibia (Drell, 1998). The
year 2001 included, in addition to one homicide (Peace
Corps, 2004c), one trampling by an elephant in Tanzania,
one car accident in Namibia, and one disappearance in
Bolivia with no reappearance (R. Zimmerman, 2001). Po-
litical unrest also can produce dangers. For example, in
2001, 311 volunteers were evacuated from Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic, which are countries
bordering Afghanistan, because of the perception that they
were endangered (R. Zimmerman, 2001). Volunteers may
also contract a variety of serious diseases—for example,
parasitic infections such as schistosomiasis (“Schistosomi-
asis in U.S. Peace Corps,” 1993). Malaria is a danger to
volunteers in many countries, with some volunteers claim-
ing long-term health damage from side effects of a preven-
tive drug, meﬂoquine, which they were required to take
(“Scores of Peace Corps volunteers,” 2002). Although it is
not possible to establish defensible base rates against which
to evaluate the unfavorable outcomes that some Peace
Corps volunteers have suffered, we agree with the Peace
Corps’ own warning to potential volunteers that “health,
safety, and security risks are an unavoidable part of life and
of volunteer service” (Peace Corps, 2003a).
In the early years of the Peace Corps, more men than
women served as volunteers, but beginning in the mid-
1980s, the sex ratios shifted toward more women than men
(Peace Corps, 1988), perhaps reﬂecting women’s increas-
ing interest in and access to a wide range of nontraditional
social roles. According to J. Bonier of the Peace Corps
Planning Policy and Analysis Section (personal communi-
cation, March 10, 2001), 9,622 applications were received
in 2000, of which 60.0% were from women; 3,889 volun-
teers and trainees were selected, of whom 62.0% were
women. In 2002, 6,678 volunteers and trainees were se-
lected, of whom 61.1% were women (Peace Corps, 2003b);
in 2003, 7,533 volunteers and trainees were selected, of
whom 59.0% were women (Peace Corps, 2004b). All of
these percentages of women exceed the U.S. population
baseline of 50.9% female (p ⬍ .001).
Doctors of the World
We also considered volunteers for Doctors of the World, an
organization in the United States that is dedicated to re-
lieving the suffering of vulnerable populations in the
United States and abroad (Doctors of the World, 2003).
Because the volunteers who serve in the United States for
the most part work in safe situations, we considered only
volunteers who serve overseas. These programs exist in
172 April 2004
locations such as Chiapas, Russia, Vietnam, Kosovo, India,
South Africa, and Romania. Volunteers receive medical
insurance, travel, and subsistence costs but no additional
stipend; many volunteers pay their own travel expenses (V.
Tripathi, Programs Department, Doctors of the World, per-
sonal communication, February 9, 2004). Although volun-
teering for service abroad with Doctors of the World does
not pose much risk of death, there is a nonnegligible risk to
delivering health and medical services in environments
marked by local violence and unsanitary conditions. There
is also some personal risk in treating patients with diseases
such as HIV–AIDS and tuberculosis.
Doctors of the World Recruitment Coordinator A.
Eleusizov (personal communication, January 17, 2003)
provided a list of volunteers, each identiﬁed by sex, pro-
fessional specialty, and country of service for 2000–2002.
Among the 76 volunteers serving abroad, 50 (or 65.8%)
were women. Although the majority of the volunteers were
physicians, primarily in family practice, some represented
other specialties (e.g., midwife, nurse trainer, psycholo-
gist). Among the 48 volunteer physicians, 27 (or 56.3%)
were women. Similar percentages of women were found in
each of the 3 years. In comparison, in the United States,
approximately one quarter of physicians (29.3%, U.S. Cen-
sus Bureau, 2002; 24.0%, American Medical Association,
2001b) and one third of primary care physicians (33.3%,
American Medical Association, 2001a) are female.
data show that it is disproportionately women who engage
in these somewhat dangerous prosocial actions (ps ⬍ .001).
This form of service to others, like volunteering for
the Peace Corps, is evidently more attractive to women
The Carnegie heroes, who placed their lives in serious
danger, were predominantly men, but the heroes in the
other classes of actions that we examined were at least as
likely to be women as men and in most cases more likely
to be women. Speciﬁcally, among holocaust rescuers, who
faced a substantial risk of execution if their actions were
detected, women and men were equally represented in
relation to population baselines in the total sample. Yet,
these rescuers were more likely to be women than men
among those not listed as part of a married couple. Also, in
three situations that involved physical risk but little risk of
dying, women predominated: donating a kidney to a person
with end-stage renal disease, volunteering for service with
the Peace Corps, and volunteering for overseas duty with
Doctors of the World. It thus appears that women’s hero-
ism emerges in several quite diverse settings. These ﬁnd-
ings challenge us to interpret why only one of the types of
heroism we identiﬁed was male-dominated and why, given
the generous representation of female heroes in our ﬁnd-
ings, heroism is culturally associated more with men than
with women. We examine these issues in turn.
Distinctive Characteristics of Carnegie
One question in interpreting the male dominance of Car-
negie rescuing is whether these situations differed from
those of holocaust rescuing in the amount of risk to the
hero’s life. Although we presented the Carnegie heroes ﬁrst
in our category of very dangerous acts because of the
known statistic of 20% posthumous awards, it is quite
possible that more than 20% of the people who aided Jews
were killed by the Nazis. Thus, in one of the two most
dangerous situations—the saving of Jews in the holo-
caust—women made heroic choices at least as often as
men, whereas in the situations identiﬁed by the Carnegie
Hero Commission, men strongly predominated. The as-
sumption that men are more prone to take risks is therefore
not sufﬁcient to explain this discrepancy in the sex ratios of
the helpers in the two most dangerous situations.
Relevant to this discrepancy in sex ratios are impor-
tant differences between the Carnegie heroes’ situations
and those of the other types of heroes we identiﬁed. One
difference is that the hero’s physical prowess was a deﬁnite
asset in most situations yielding Carnegie medalists, in
terms of both saving the other person and the rescuer
surviving the act of rescuing. The greater physical prowess
of men than women may thus account for their lower death
rate as Carnegie heroes (16.4% for men vs. 25.5% for
women; Johnson, 1996). Just as in the nonemergency sit-
uations of everyday life, requirements of physical prowess
favor male action. As Wood and Eagly (2002) argued,
men’s greater speed and upper-body strength especially
facilitate their ability to perform efﬁciently tasks that re-
quire intensive bursts of energy, and this physical differ-
ence between the sexes is one general constraint on the
female–male division of labor. Possibly androgens, espe-
cially testosterone, which some researchers have impli-
cated in the development of male rough-and-tumble play
and aggression (e.g., Taylor et al., 2000), also facilitate
assertive physical intervention in risky situations (but see
Turner, 1994). It is in addition possible, consistent with
Huston et al.’s (1981) study of interveners in dangerous
crime situations, that men are more likely than women to
have undergone training for rescuing. Such training is
sometimes associated with military service or with activi-
ties such as Boy Scouting, which offers merit badges for
training in activities such as emergency preparedness, life-
Although we had initially planned to review United Nations vol-
unteers, over 70% are citizens of developing countries (United Nations
Volunteers, 2003a). Because the status of women tends to be relatively
low in many developing countries and women’s opportunities are there-
fore limited (United Nations Development Programme, 2003), inclusion
in our analysis of this group of volunteers, which is currently 64.4% male
(United Nations Volunteers, 2003b), would have violated our equal access
stipulation. For the same reasons, we also excluded volunteers for Doctors
Without Borders (2004), an international organization that sends more
than 2,500 volunteers from many nations to 80 countries each year.
Because a few volunteers served more than once during a year, we
also determined the sex distribution on the basis of tours of duty, with very
saving, and ﬁrst aid (U.S. Scouting Service Project, 2003).
With at least 16,000,000 men having served in the U.S.
armed forces in World War II and smaller but very sub-
stantial numbers in other wars (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002,
Table 498) and as many as 5,000,000 boys associated with
Boy Scout programs in a single year (Boy Scouts of Amer-
ica, 2002), a large number of men in the United States have
undergone at least some training for rescuing.
The situations of Carnegie medalists differed in three
additional respects from those of the holocaust rescuers and
the other types of heroes we studied: the public nature of
their prosocial act, the necessity for immediate action, and
the demand for emotional control in the face of extreme
danger. Although Carnegie rescues were not necessarily
carried out in the presence of an audience other than the
victim, they gained journalistic attention, given that these
heroes were nominated on the basis of newspaper clip-
pings. In contrast, holocaust rescuing was hidden, and
kidney donations and volunteering for the Peace Corps or
Doctors of the World, although not private or concealed
acts, would have been known mainly in limited circles of
family, friends, and coworkers. The presence of an audi-
ence may foster male heroism by increasing the salience of
two normative constraints that are aspects of the male
gender role: demands for bold and courageous action (Le-
vant & Kopecky, 1995) and pressures to rise in social
hierarchies (Baumeister & Sommer, 1997). Consistent with
this argument, in a meta-analysis of sex differences in
prosocial behavior in situations that entailed little or no risk
of death or physical injury, Eagly and Crowley (1986)
found that the greater tendency of men than women to
engage in such helping was strong when the helpers were
under others’ surveillance (mean d ⫽ 0.74) but absent
when they were not under surveillance (mean d ⫽ –0.02).
The requirement that the Carnegie medalists act im-
mediately to rescue the victim may have favored male
rescuing, given men’s presumed propensity for quick, im-
pulsive physical action in extreme situations (Zuckerman &
Kuhlman, 2000). Although holocaust rescuing sometimes
also required immediate action, the decision to help often
developed somewhat gradually as rescuers became aware
that their friends, neighbors, or coworkers were endangered
(Gilbert, 2003). Decisions to donate a kidney or to volun-
teer for the Peace Corps or Doctors of the World presum-
ably were ordinarily preceded by contemplation of the
consequences of these decisions (see Borgida et al., 1992,
for kidney donors).
Finally, effective action in an emergency situation
involving extreme danger requires considerable emotional
control to keep one’s fears sufﬁciently in check to act very
quickly and competently. As Lois (2003) observed in a
participant–observer study of a mountain search and rescue
team, such dangerous activity requires suppressing the ex-
pression of emotions while in a high state of arousal. The
requisite emotional coolness and self-control are consistent
with norms of masculine stoicism. Boys’ socialization to
control their emotions (e.g., Goldstein, 2001; Pollack,
1998) may thus leave them better prepared for such activ-
ities. In summary, our comparative analysis of heroic be-
haviors suggests that the male dominance of Carnegie
heroism stems not mainly from the support that the male
gender role gives to risk taking or from an evolved risk-
taking disposition but from these acts favoring male phys-
ical prowess, their provision of an opportunity for public
recognition, and possibly, their demand for immediate ac-
tion and emotional control.
Sources of Heroism in Empathic Concern,
Relational Self-Construal, Ethics, and Male
Our theoretical analysis also maintains that heroism stems
in part from an expression of empathic concern with others’
welfare, a theme that has received considerable emphasis in
discussions of the psychology of women. Consistent with
psychological research on holocaust rescuers (S. P. Oliner
& Oliner, 1988) and kidney donors (Simmons et al., 1977),
the expression of empathic concern with others’ plight
appears to be important to much of the heroism that we
have studied. As suggested by the themes in the female
gender role that emphasize caring and concern for others,
women appear to be at least as motivated as men to behave
heroically, absent the special features of the heroic Carne-
gie rescues. It may be that women risk their lives and
personal welfare mainly in the service of others. Although
men’s heroism is equally in the service of others, men,
more than women, also engage in very dangerous actions
that may harm themselves and others, such as violent crime
and dangerous driving, and risky activities that may pro-
duce personal pleasure as well as enhanced social status,
such as participation in sports that commonly result in
physical injury (Byrnes et al., 1999).
Women’s risk taking, arising in the service of others,
is assumed to derive at least in part from their traditional
family role as main nurturer (Eagly et al., 2000). Whether
this relational risk taking also has deeper roots in evolved
dispositions is a matter for speculation. Although females
engage in extreme risk taking in defense of their young
throughout mammalian species (Fox, 1999), the greater
tendency of women than men to donate a kidney was not
greater when the recipients of donated kidneys were chil-
dren suffering end-stage renal disease. Nevertheless, it is
possible that women’s physiological responses to stress
prime their other-oriented, helpful actions, consistent with
Taylor et al.’s (2000) argument. Yet, the greater tendency
for women than men to put themselves at risk in most of the
settings that we studied is not congenial to the evolutionary
psychology arguments whereby men possess a general
evolved disposition to take risks and women to avoid risks.
By Wilson and Daly’s (1985) argument, men should be
generally willing to engage in risky behavior. By Camp-
bell’s (1999) argument, women should be generally unwill-
ing to engage in risky behavior, especially when physical
injury or death is a possibility. Contrary to this logic, it
appears that men are not particularly willing to take certain
kinds of risks in the service of others, such as those in-
volved in kidney donation, and women, somewhat more
174 April 2004
than men, are willing to take these risks. Evolutionary
psychologists may thus have given insufﬁcient attention to
risk taking that helps others and in addition may have
overestimated the extent to which men’s mating suc-
cess was dependent on assertive, risky behavior and chil-
dren’s survival depended mainly on maternal caretaking
in the primeval period when humans evolved (Wood &
Regardless of the ultimate origins of women’s concern
with others, women’s self-construals tend to be relational
in the sense that they include others who are important to
them, especially in close, dyadic relationships (Gardner &
Gabriel, 2004). The behaviors that we have studied, espe-
cially those of holocaust rescuers and Doctors of the
World, possibly would reﬂect relational self-construal to
the extent that others are helped mainly in dyadic and
small-group contexts. In fact, among the Carnegie medal-
ists, a higher proportion of rescues by women than men
were directed toward relatives or people known by the
rescuer (53% vs. 32%; Johnson, 1996). However, most of
the heroic people we have identiﬁed extended this service
to others beyond the bounds of existing close relationships.
This extension was thus usual for Carnegie medalists, most
holocaust rescuers, Peace Corps volunteers, and Doctors of
the World volunteers as well as for those rare kidney
donors whose gift went to a stranger or acquaintance.
These rescuers, volunteers, and donors served people who
often differed from themselves in major ways, including
nationality, ethnicity, cultural beliefs, lifestyle, and reli-
gion. Extending one’s helpfulness to people different from
oneself distinguishes many of the male and female heroes
we have studied. Such actions are no doubt facilitated by
acceptance of the universalistic themes of brotherhood with
all humans that are inherent in many religious and ethical
systems (P. M. Oliner & Oliner, 1995; Post, 2002).
Insufﬁciently explored in discussions of heroism are
the forms of other-oriented protectiveness that are consis-
tent with the male gender role. As Gilmore (1990) argued,
men’s protection of others is directed mainly toward the
family as a unit and the community and society: “Men
nurture their society . . . by bringing home food for both
mother and child and by dying if necessary in faraway
places to provide a safe haven for their people” (p. 220).
Although the division of labor inherent in this character-
ization is neither inevitable nor universal (Wood & Eagly,
2002), it surely is common in world societies. To the extent
that it is present, it demands a different socialization for
boys and girls, for example, to prepare men to leave their
homes to go to war and fend off enemies (Goldstein, 2001).
Men’s connection with other people has thus been charac-
terized as mainly group oriented and collective rather than
dyadic and relational (Baumeister & Sommer, 1997; Gard-
ner & Gabriel, 2004), and much male heroism takes place
in structured, male-dominated social roles such as soldier,
ﬁre ﬁghter, and police ofﬁcer, which are designed to defend
the community and society.
Cultural Association of Men With Heroism
This analysis helps solve the remaining puzzle of the cul-
tural association of heroism with men and masculinity,
despite the substantial delivery of heroic behavior by
women that we have documented. At the proximal level,
the highly public nature of much of men’s prosocial risk
taking is one source of this cultural emphasis. More pro-
foundly, women have traditionally been excluded from
male-dominated protective roles, especially from military
service, above all from the combat roles that can yield
heroic status (Goldstein, 2001; Wood & Eagly, 2002). In
fact, one of the reasons that we did not examine heroism in
military or in other dangerous occupational roles such as
ﬁre ﬁghter is that the exclusion of women disallowed
comparing the heroism of women and men in the same
situations. The high visibility of men’s heroism in such
roles has allowed courage and heroism to be ascribed more
to men than to women and to become culturally elaborated
as elements of desirable masculinity. Many of women’s
heroic actions of, for example, hiding holocaust victims or
giving a kidney to a family member are inherently quite
private, known to few, and in the case of rescuing Jews,
very carefully hidden. Volunteering for the Peace Corps
and Doctors of the World is surely public but lacks the high
visibility of military heroism or rescuing in high-stakes
situations of sudden emergencies. Although most people
probably have little difﬁculty in recognizing that the some-
what female-dominated heroic actions that we have exam-
ined are consistent with cultural construals of the female
gender role, they may not have contemplated how common
these acts have been among women or how risky (and
therefore heroic) such actions can be.
We hope that by bringing women’s heroism to the attention
of a wider audience, our research will help produce not
only some modiﬁcation of psychological theories pertain-
ing to risk taking, heroism, and gender, but also some
cultural shift whereby heroism will be viewed as more
androgynous. However, any substantial shift in the cultural
association between men and heroism probably awaits the
entry of more women into the most common social roles
that require risking one’s life. Such change is underway, as
suggested by women constituting 15% of active duty mil-
itary personnel in the United States (Ofﬁce of the Secretary
of Defense, 2002), occupying many combat roles (McDon-
ough, 2003), and receiving intense publicity for their mil-
itary service in the war with Iraq (e.g., Wilgoren, 2003).
Our ﬁndings raise questions that deserve further study.
In particular, more attention could be directed to heroes’
motivations, especially in terms of altruistic versus egoistic
motives (Batson, 1991, 2002). The broader issue of the
psychological and psychophysiological mediation of heroic
behavior warrants attention and could illuminate the sex
differences and similarities that we have presented. We
thus hope that our ﬁndings inspire research on these issues.
Also, our research underscores the value of seeking data
from natural settings. Following Tinbergen’s (1963) advice
to study behavior in natural settings, we have explored the
psychology of heroism in women and men by studying
their prosocial behavior in several different types of risky
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