Notice similar statements when people who have committed heroic acts are interviewed? They tend to say, “I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I was just doing what anyone would have done.” (This from a man who climbed into a burning car to save a woman.)
Or “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular” (this from a man who leaped in front of an oncoming subway train to pull an unconscious man from the tracks.)
Or “I think anybody else would have done it.” (This from a teacher who stopped a school shooter by embracing him in a bear hug.)
The same rationale is heard from people who rise to heroic acts despite living with difficult circumstances of their own.
A homeless man who tried to tackle robbers during an attempted hold-up of a Brinks truck and memorized the license plate of their get-away car said, “You just gotta look out for what’s happening with people around you other than yourself.”
A teen with an extensive criminal record stole a bus to drive victims of Hurricane Katrina to safety. He explained, “The police was leaving people behind. I had to pick up people on the bus. The police didn’t want to do nothing. We stepped up and did what we had to do.”
And a homeless man lost his few possessions after jumping into an icy river to rescue a drowning woman. He said “I just did what needed to be done because someone needed my help.”
In their own words heroes continue to tell us that what they have done is not at all extraordinary. If we hold heroes apart from us as superhuman and describe their actions as unfathomably brave, we deny that all of us have the capacity to be heroes if the need arises.
We can develop that capacity. When I lead non-violence workshops we start by working on issues of empathy (identifying with the emotions, ideas, and attitudes of others) as well as empowerment to act on that empathy. Both are necessary to break through what’s been called the “bystander effect.” This was first identified by Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule due to the kindness of others. Dr. Staub explains in The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence that it takes the willingness of those who are uninvolved (bystanders) to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Without such bystanders, atrocities such as war and genocide are “permitted” to happen.
The bystander effect is active on a smaller scale as well. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person they are more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.
What’s the difference between those who ignore suffering and those who are moved to alleviate suffering? People who have imperiled their lives for months or years to help others can give us some insight. Svetlana Broz, author of Good People in an Evil Time: Portraits of Complicity and Resistance in the Bosnian War, says it requires at least three attributes.
1. The courage to think for oneself, resisting conformity even at the risk of one’s own safety.
2. A moral core that inspires action.
3. The capacity to empathize with those who are dissimilar.
Eva Fogelman, author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, writes that heroic acts tend to come from a deep sense of common humanity. The roots of this behavior may stem from early upbringing. Fogelman notes that many Holocaust rescuers themselves suffered and were sensitized to the suffering of others. They also tended to have been raised in loving families where self-worth was fostered and reason rather than punishment was used as discipline.
Social scientists still know quite a bit more about aberrant behavior than why people choose to do good. That’s changing according to Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Zimbardo conducted the now infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (check it out on this slide show) which demonstrated that psychologically normal people will instigate and take part in atrocities. Now Zimbardo is devoting himself to bringing forth the brighter side. He’s started an organization called Heroic Imagination Project which aims to teach the rudiments of heroism.
Currently a pilot project, it consists of four main educational components taught over four weeks.
- Students initially learn about us versus them attitudes, unthinking obedience to authority, and other human tendencies which unwittingly allow cruelties to happen.
- Next they work on building empathic responses through listening, paying attention, and “walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes.”
- Then they study heroic stories, seeking role models and discovering that compassionate action does inspire.
- And finally they practice heroic behavior on a daily basis by translating their good intentions into action, no matter how small.
We don’t have to wait for a course. The steps taught by the Heroic Imagination Project are the building blocks of human decency, things we should teach our children every day and should continue to develop in ourselves.
We’re captivated by real heroes in the news and imaginary heroes in the movies because they call out the best in us. Such stories ask us to live up to our values, not only when we’re in extreme situations.
It’s also time to recognize unsung heroes around us everywhere. They don’t get publicity because their deeds don’t seem extraordinary. Unselfish acts performed a million times a minute weave us together as a caring species. We tend to the helpless, comfort the sorrowful, share knowledge, and create happiness. Such kindness is contagious, each act of compassion and cooperation spreading out in enlarging waves of goodwill. Such efforts may seem small, but they are the basis for making heroism happen.