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What Makes a Hero?

This month, Greater Good features videos of a presentation by Philip Zimbardo, the world-renowned psychologist perhaps best known for his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. In his talk, Zimbardo discusses the psychology of evil and of heroism, exploring why good people sometimes turn bad and how we can encourage more people to perform heroic acts. In this excerpt from his talk, he zeroes in on his research and educational program designed to foster the “heroic imagination.”

More on Heroism

Watch the video of Philip Zimbardo's Greater Good talk on heroism.

Read his essay on "The Banality of Heroism ," which further explores the conditions that can promote heroism vs. evil.

Read this Greater Good essay on the "psychology of the bystander."

What makes us good? What makes us evil?

Research has uncovered many answers to the second question: Evil can be fostered by dehumanization, diffusion of responsibility, obedience to authority, unjust systems, group pressure, moral disengagement, and anonymity, to name a few.

But when we ask why people become heroic, research doesn’t yet have an answer. It could be that heroes have more compassion or empathy; maybe there’s a hero gene; maybe it’s because of their levels of oxytocin—research by neuroeconomist Paul Zak has shown that this “love hormone” in the brain increases the likelihood you’ll demonstrate altruism. We don’t know for sure.

I believe that heroism is different than altruism and compassion. For the last five years, my colleagues and I have been exploring the nature and roots of heroism, studying exemplary cases of heroism and surveying thousands of people about their choices to act (or not act) heroically. In that time, we’ve come to define heroism as an activity with several parts.

First, it’s performed in service to others in need—whether that’s a person, group, or community—or in defense of certain ideals. Second, it’s engaged in voluntarily, even in military contexts, as heroism remains an act that goes beyond something required by military duty. Third, a heroic act is one performed with recognition of possible risks and costs, be they to one’s physical health or personal reputation, in which the actor is willing to accept anticipated sacrifice. Finally, it is performed without external gain anticipated at the time of the act.

Simply put, then, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward.

By that definition, then, altruism is heroism light—it doesn’t always involve a serious risk. Compassion is a virtue that may lead to heroism, but we don’t know that it does. We’re just now starting to scientifically distinguish heroism from these other concepts and zero in on what makes a hero.

My work on heroism follows 35 years of research in which I studied the psychology of evil, including my work on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. The two lines of research aren’t as different as they might seem; they’re actually two sides of the same coin.

A key insight from research on heroism so far is that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.

Take the Holocaust. Christians who helped Jews were in the same situation as other civilians who helped imprison or kill Jews, or ignored their suffering. The situation provided the impetus to act heroically or malevolently. Why did some people choose one path or the other?

Another key insight from my research has been that there’s no clear line between good and evil. Instead, the line is permeable; people can cross back and forth between it.

This is an idea wonderfully represented in an illusion by M. C. Escher, at left. When you squint and focus on the white as the figures and the black as the background, you see a world full of angels and tutus dancing around happily. But now focus on the black as the figures and the white as the background: Now it’s a world full of demons.

What Escher’s telling us is that the world is filled with angels and devils, goodness and badness, and these dark and light aspects of human nature are our basic yin and yang. That is, we all are born with the capacity to be anything. Because of our incredible brains, anything that is imaginable becomes possible, anything that becomes possible can get transformed into action, for better or for worse.

Some people argue humans are born good or born bad; I think that’s nonsense. We are all born with this tremendous capacity to be anything, and we get shaped by our circumstances—by the family or the culture or the time period in which we happen to grow up, which are accidents of birth; whether we grow up in a war zone versus peace; if we grow up in poverty rather than prosperity.

George Bernard Shaw captured this point in the preface to his great play “Major Barbara”: “Every reasonable man and woman is a potential scoundrel and a potential good citizen. What a man is depends upon his character what’s inside. What he does and what we think of what he does depends on upon his circumstances.”

So each of us may possess the capacity to do terrible things. But we also posses an inner hero; if stirred to action, that inner hero is capable of performing tremendous goodness for others.

Another conclusion from my research is that few people do evil and fewer act heroically. Between these extremes in the bell curve of humanity are the masses—the general population who do nothing, who I call the “reluctant heroes”—those who refuse the call to action and, by doing nothing, often implicitly support the perpetrators of evil.

So on this bell curve of humanity, villains and heroes are the outliers. The reluctant heroes are the rest. What we need to discover is how to give a call to service to this general population. How do we make them aware of the evil that exists? How do we prevent them from getting seduced to the dark side?

We don’t yet have a recipe for creating heroes, but we have some clues, based on the stories of some inspiring heroes.

I love the story of a wonderful nine-year-old Chinese boy, who I call a dutiful hero. In 2008, there was a massive earthquake in China’s Szechuan

province. The ceiling fell down on a school, killing almost all the kids in it. This kid escaped, and as he was running away he noticed two other kids struggling to get out. He ran back and saved them. He was later asked, “Why did you do that?” He replied, “I was the hall monitor! It was my duty, it was my job to look after my classmates!”

This perfectly illustrates what I call the “heroic imagination,” a focus on one’s duty to help and protect others. For him, it was cultivated by being assigned this role of hall monitor.

Another story: Irena Sendler was a Polish hero, a Catholic woman who saved at least 2,500 Jewish kids who were holed up in the Warsaw ghetto that the Nazis had erected. She was able to convince the parents of these kids to allow her to smuggle them out of the ghetto to safety. To do this, she organized a network.

That is a key principle of heroism: Heroes are most effective not alone but in a network. It’s through forming a network that people have the resources to bring their heroic impulses to life.

What these stories suggest is that every one of us can be a hero. Through my work on heroism, I’ve become even more convinced that acts of heroism don’t just arrive from truly exceptional people but from people placed in the right circumstance, given the necessary tools to transform compassion into heroic action.

Building on these insights, I have helped to start a program designed to learn more of heroism and to create the heroes of tomorrow.

The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) is amplifying the voice of the world’s quiet heroes, using research and education networks to promote a heroic imagination in everyone, and then empower ordinary people of all ages and nations to engage in extraordinary acts of heroism. We want to democratize the notion of heroism, to emphasize that most heroes are ordinary people; it’s the act that’s extraordinary.

There are already a lot of great heroes projects out there, such as the Giraffe Heroes Project. The HIP is unique in that it’s the only one encouraging research into heroism, because there’s very little.

Here are a few key insights from research we’ve done surveying 4,000 Americans from across the country. Each of these statements is valid after controlling for all demographic variables, such as education and socioeconomic status.

Heroes surround us. One in five—20 percent—qualify as heroes, based on the definition of heroism I provide above. Seventy-two percent report helping another person in a dangerous emergency. Sixteen percent report whistle blowing on an injustice. Six percent report sacrificing for a non-relative or stranger. Fifteen percent report defying an unjust authority. And not one of these people has been formally recognized as a hero.

Opportunity matters. Most acts of heroism occur in urban areas, where there are more people and more people in need. You’re not going to be a hero if you live in the suburbs. No shit happens in the suburbs!

Education matters. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be a hero, I think because you are more aware of situations.

Volunteering matters. One third of all the sample who were heroes also had volunteered significantly, up to 59 hours a week.

Gender matters. Males reported performing acts of heroism more than females. I think this is because women tend not to regard a lot of their heroic actions as heroic. It’s just what they think they’re supposed to do for their family or a friend.

Race matters. Blacks were eight times more likely than whites to qualify as heroes. We think that’s in part due to the rate of opportunity. (In our next survey, we’re going to track responses by area code to see if in fact these heroes are coming from inner cities.

Personal history matters. Having survived a disaster or personal trauma makes you three times more likely to be a hero and a volunteer.

Based on these insights into heroism, we’ve put together a toolkit for potential heroes, especially young heroes in training, who already have opportunities to act heroically when they’re kids, such as by opposing bullying.

A first step is to take the “hero pledge,” a public declaration on our website that says you’re willing to be a hero in waiting. It’s a pledge “to act when confronted with a situation where I feel something is wrong,” “to develop my heroic abilities,” and “to believe in the heroic capacities within myself and others, so I can build and refine them.”

You can also take our four-week “Hero Challenge” mini-course online to help you develop your heroic muscles. The challenge may not require you to do anything heroic, but it’s training you to be heroic. And we offer more rigorous, research-based education and training programs for middle and high schools, corporations, and the millitary that make people aware of the social factors that produce passivity, inspire them to take positive civic action, and encourage the skills needed to consistently translate heroic impulses into action.

We’re also in the process of creating an Encyclopedia of Heroes, a collection of hero stories from all over the world. Not just all the classic ones and fictional ones, but ones that people from around the world are going to send in, so they can nominate ordinary heroes with a picture and a story. It will be searchable, so you can find heroes by age, gender, city and country. These are the unsung, quiet heroes—they do their own thing, put themselves in danger, defend a moral cause, help someone in need. And we want to highlight them. We want them to be inspirational to other people just like them.

Essentially, we’re trying to build the social habits of heroes, to build a focus on the other, shifting away from the “me” and toward the “we.” As the poet John Donne wrote: “No man [or woman] is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

So every person is part of humanity. Each person’s pulse is part of humanity’s heartbeat. Heroes circulate the life force of goodness in our veins. And what the world needs now is more heroes—you. It’s time to take action against evil.


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