Everyday Heroes

When we think of heroes, images of Marvel Comics and other fantastic characters might spring to mind. But heroic deeds take place all the time...

Photo © digitalskillet

USA Today reported that 20 per cent of Americans have done heroic deeds. The story, by reporter Sharon Jayson, cites a study by Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo and supported by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford. Zimbardo and his colleagues used a nationally-representative sample of 4,000 adults and found that 20 per cent of them qualified as heroes—meaning they had helped during a dangerous emergency, taken a stand against injustice, or sacrificed for a stranger. “Heroes are ordinary people,” says Zimbardo. “You become a hero by doing an extraordinary deed.”

The study found that black people and Hispanic people were twice as likely as white people to have performed heroic deeds. Zimbardo says they want to do follow-up research on the reasons for the racial/ethnic differences, which he speculates could be attributed to “greater opportunities to respond” or “being discriminated against makes them have more compassion to others in need.” During the study, participants were asked, “Have you ever done something that other people—not necessarily you yourself—considered a heroic act or deed?” Those who answered “yes” selected from a list the actions most similar to their own: helping another person in a dangerous emergency; “blowing the whistle” on an injustice with awareness of the personal risk or threat to yourself; sacrifice on behalf of a non-relative or stranger, such as an organ donation; defying unjust authority; or other.

Among the 20 per cent who met the survey definition, 55 per cent had helped someone during an emergency, 8 per cent confronted an injustice, 14 per cent had defied unjust authority and 5 per cent had sacrificed for a stranger. “These are people who did very dramatic things,” Zimbardo says. “They’re everyday quiet heroes.” The survey also found someone is more likely to be a hero if the individual has experienced a personal trauma or disaster; or the individual has previously volunteered in non-threatening settings, such as at a soup kitchen.

“We have a need for heroes because we have a need to be challenged,” says social psychologist Scott Allison of Richmond, Va. "We love heroes because of what they offer us—hope for better world.” Allison co-authored a book entitled Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them. About 450 adults were interviewed face-to-face and asked to name their heroes and explain why. The survey produced a pattern of traits common to heroes, including intelligence, courage, charisma and selflessness.

The future is just why Zimbardo says he created the nonprofit Heroic Imagination Project, which has begun with pilot programs for adolescents in the Bay area. “At a very deep psychological level, we all need and want heroes to be special people to inspire us,” he says. “Heroes are really the soul of a nation. They represent what is best in human nature.”