For most of us, it is hard to know exactly how we would have responded to Jewish neighbors who needed our help during the Holocaust. Would we have come to their aid, or turned a blind eye to their plight?

In a study recently published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers at Columbia University set out to identify the factors most strongly associated with courageous acts of altruism during the Holocaust. They interviewed over 150 non-Jewish adults who lived in Europe during World War II and were currently living in the United States or Canada. The participants fell into one of two categories, “rescuer” or “bystander.” Rescuers were those who helped at least one Jewish person and did so at great personal risk, with no expectation of a reward, and had not been previously recognized or honored for their actions. Bystanders, in contrast, were people who lived in close proximity to rescuers and to people who had been rescued, but stayed out of rescue efforts.

In response to questions measuring personality traits, the rescuers showed significantly higher levels of social responsibility, empathy, risk-taking, and “altruistic moral reasoning” (which means they seem to respond with care and compassion in the face of human suffering). Having these characteristics was by far the best predictor of whether someone had helped Jews during the Holocaust. These traits were much more strongly associated with rescuing than were either external, “situational” factors—such as people’s previous experiences with Jews, personally witnessing Nazi brutality, or being directly asked for help—or demographic factors, such as their gender, age, or religion.

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These results challenge a popular belief about why some people behave altruistically while others don’t, according to Elizabeth Midlarsky, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University and one of the study’s authors. In the case of the Holocaust, she says, people often argue that circumstances determined who was most likely to help. By this logic, for instance, rescuers were the ones who knew more about what was happening to Jews, or had resources—such as a large home with an attic—that made it easier for them to help.

“Our findings indicated, though, that the rescuers and nonrescuers differed primarily in what we call character, or personality,” says Midlarsky. “The implication is that in any society, parents, teachers, and media figures can teach, exemplify, and encourage altruistic motives and emotions, which can promote the willingness to help others in need.”

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