What Makes a Hero?

The surprising science of selflessness

Next Rolling Stone Cover: Boston's Heroes?

It's important to acknowledge evil, but we should celebrate the good as well.

When I saw the fuzzy photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the recent cover of Rolling Stone, I wasn't all that distressed—both Hitler and Stalin, after all, have appeared on the cover of Time. The RS cover and accompanying story might appeal to our dark fascination with the uglier aspects of human nature, but they also force us to contemplate how an affable-seeming teen could have turned into a terrorist. Because this question so urgently demands an answer, it's clear that delving into Tsarnaev's history and psyche is a necessary project.

Still, there are other stories from the Marathon bombings that have not yet been told powerfully enough. It's only natural to ruminate on Tamerlan Tsarnaev's long hopscotch to radicalization and the casual video gaming session Dzhokhar Tsarnaev enjoyed with a friend the day after the attacks. But even as the two brothers slunk away from the carnage they created, countless Boston bystanders were aiding the injured even though they knew they might be risking their own lives. They bandaged wounds; they stabilized broken bones; they supplied words of comfort to people they'd never met in their lives. North Carolina doctor Allan Panter, a spectator waiting for his wife to finish the race, applied impromptu gauze tourniquets to victims' limbs to stop their bleeding. Amanda North—a mom from California whose own eardrum was blown out by the bomb blast—stayed with badly injured preschool teacher Erika Brannock, holding Brannock's hand and promising she would not let go. And as one man's body burned, Boston Police patrolman Thomas Barrett patted down the flames with his gloves.

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In the aftermath of the tragedy, our celebration of Boston's everyday heroes was short-lived—perhaps because some of them shrugged off what they did as no big deal, as what anyone in that situation would have done. Yet they are living illustrations of how humility and greatness of spirit so often go hand-in-hand. What's more, internalizing their stories may help us transform our own lives and those of others for the better.

Research tells us that highly selfless people aren't just born, they're made, and one aspect of building a strong helping identity is finding other helpers to emulate. When sociologist Samuel Oliner and his educator wife, Pearl, studied hundreds of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, they found that such heroic individuals often pointed to influential family members who'd shown them the importance of caring for others. Having learned the virtues of selflessness from these role models, rescuers felt compelled to intervene on behalf of their Jewish friends even though they knew the risks.

It's powerful to see people a lot like us extend themselves in heroic ways. It gives us hope that even though most of us consider ourselves pretty average—lacking transcendent traits or superhuman capabilities—we, too, could behave heroically if called upon to do so. Psychologist Phil Zimbardo, founder of the San Francisco-based Heroic Imagination Project, believes that most heroes are ordinary; it's the act of heroism that's extraordinary.

What I'd really like to see, then, is a magazine cover featuring a montage or group photo of some of the Boston Marathon heroes. Because while it's important to look unflinchingly at the worst in human nature to keep future evil from gaining traction, it's just as important to acknowledge the best so that we have real heroic role models—not just cape-wearing cartoon legends—to look up to.

Elizabeth Svoboda is a science writer living in San Jose, CA. Her first book, What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness, comes out in September.

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