One of my readers recently asked me a pointed question: Why are there so few heroes? It’s a good question that deserves some thought, especially given how much our world is rife with poverty, famine, violence, natural disasters, and tragic accidents.
We need heroes more than ever. So where are they? Why do they seem to be in such short supply?
Let’s explore four possible reasons.
1. “To be a hero, you have to learn to be a deviant”
Psychologist Phil Zimbardo uttered this line, and he is right. Heroism requires people to depart from their normal world, to cast aside conventional ways of behaving. Heroes are not ordinary – they are extraordinary.
Examples of heroic deviance permeate our culture. Harry Potter was hardly a typical student at Hogwarts. Jesus of Nazareth was a counter-cultural rebel who defied the prevailing order. Batman is hardly “normal” by any definition. Everyday people who become heroes display a willingness to behave freakishly, as my good friend Dave Rendall likes to say.
2. Heroes must often overcome psychological barriers
Psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane studied the bystander effect, which refers to the failure of people to help in emergencies when others are around who could potentially help. People tend to diffuse responsibility and assume that others should do the heroic work, a type of psychological laziness that is engendered simply by being in a large group or society.
Here’s the hard truth: Being subject to psychological pressures or social forces that encourage inaction is no excuse for failing to help people who need it. Barriers to heroism can be broken down when we summon the moral courage to do the right thing even when it is hard to do the right thing.
3. Heroism involves risk and potential danger
Emergency situations offer severe challenges to us. Darley and Latane have noted that emergencies have several qualities that make it surprising that any heroes emerge from them. First, emergencies are rare and unexpected. This rarity means that emergencies can easily catch us off-guard and leave us seemingly paralyzed.
Second, emergency situations are often dangerous. To be heroic, we must sometimes be willing to put our own lives at risk to help others. Third, emergencies require immediate action. We can’t stop and ponder the pros and cons of intervening or consult with trusted friends about whether to help. We must act quickly. These three characteristics of emergencies make effective responses to them difficult.
4. Heroism requires knowledge and preparation
A fourth characteristic of emergencies is that they differ widely from each other. Saving a drowning person requires a completely different set of skills compared to the act of saving a heart attack victim. A choking victim needs help from someone trained to perform the Heimlich maneuver, and a person who stops breathing needs someone with CPR training.
Countless times heroes have reported that their training and preparation enabled them to save lives. You can have the best intentions in the world but if you lack the skills to save someone, you render yourself useless in an emergency.
Heroism isn’t rewarded by society. In fact, it involves great risks, potential danger, a willingness to be deviant, and good preparation. It’s a wonder that anyone steps up to be a hero.
Yet every day, people do choose to act heroically. And that’s the good news – there may be more heroes than we think. When I’ve asked people to name their heroes, over half the heroes named are parents, teachers, coaches, firefighters, healthcare workers, law enforcement, and the military.
These are the unsung heroes of society. They are found in great abundance all around us, but they rarely receive any recognition or fame. They do their heroic work quietly behind the scenes.
There are also people like Matt Langdon and Jason Roy at the Hero Construction Companywho visit schools to train children to become heroes. Preliminary results of a recent doctoral dissertation by Elisabeth Heiner at the Wright Institute suggest that children who watched Langdon’s presentations showed a significant increase in their levels of courage, even 30 days later.
We can indeed equip future generations with the tools to become heroes. In fact, we can all become heroes right now, today, if we are prepared for the challenges mentioned here and are willing to do what it takes to help others.
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.
Heiner, E. (2014). Fostering Heroism (Unpublished doctoral disseration). The Wright Institute, Berkeley, CA.
Langdon, M. (2014). The hero construction company. http://www.theherocc.com/
Latane, B., & Darley, J. (1969). Bystander "Apathy". American Scientist, 57, 244-268.
Rendall, D. J. (2011). The freak factor: Discovering uniqueness by flaunting weakness. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.
Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.
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