Beyond Heroes and Villains

Investigating the nature of good guys and bad guys in fiction and real life

Who Are Your Heroes?

Can psychology study good and evil?

Actor Adam West expresses his concern over modern role models.
Adam West shares his concerns about role models.
Photo by Alex Langley. San Diego Comic-Con International. July, 2009.
Who are your heroes?

I’ve asked many people this question. Some name fictional characters. Others pick family members, celebrities, colleagues, or historical figures.

Lou Ferrigno said he grew up as a hearing-impaired boy who dreamed of becoming strong like Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk, the poignant monster Ferrigno would eventually portray. Actors Kevin Sorbo (Hercules) and Dean Cain (Lois & Clark’s Superman) each told me they’d looked up to athletes, whereas Billy Dee Williams (The Empire Strikes Back’s Lando Calrissian) named his mother, his grandmother, “my sister and then my children and now my grandchildren.” 1960s Batman star Adam West worried about what kind of heroes kids have these days: Who are their role models in this cynical age? Who lights their way when the stories grow dark?

Actors who’ve played heroes are hardly the only ones whom my students and I have asked. We’ve posed this question to scholars, college students, prison inmates, online respondents, fans waiting in Comic-Con lines, and more, altogether over a thousand people from many walks of life. I’d love to ask living heroes themselves, but where do I find them? How do I discuss heroism with the individuals many of us consider to be true heroes when they tend not to know they are? “We’re not heroes,” a retired New York police sergeant said of himself and fellow emergency service providers, people doing their jobs, when he joined me and some colleagues on a New York Comic Con panel last year. To him, an older woman who once opened her door wielding a frying pan, ready to stand up to a local drug dealer, “now she’s the real hero.” So who’s her hero?

Can psychologists explain, identify, or even define heroism? What is it? Researchers have investigated helping, altruism, advocacy, civil disobedience, and other ways of standing up for what’s right, but by focusing on specific actions, we might miss the forest for the trees when it comes to recognizing valor. If we cannot say what heroism is, if it lacks operational definition, how can we figure out where it comes from?

I’m going to explore this for a while. If you keep coming here, you can watch. We’ll trek into the dark side too, sometimes the darkest, because it can take the contrast of a villain to clarify what a hero is and is not. Many of the same difficulties in studying heroism apply to villainy as well, but considering that good vs. evil has endured throughout the ages among the most fundamental human concerns, a field dedicated to studying the psyche with its many motives and drives still ought to try.

Let’s start with that first question, though: Who are your heroes?

And why?

Travis Langley, Ph.D. is the author of Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.

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