There’s a Hero Inside of Everyone, and We’re Not Saying That to Make You Feel Good

Science journalist Elizabeth Svoboda’s new book examines the roots and reasons of heroism, from evolution and biology to meditation and volunteering

Science journalist Elizabeth Svoboda claims that we can train to be heroes. (© Hero Images/Hero Images/Corbis)
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For millennia, humankind has been captivated by heroic deeds, and the brave souls who carry out such life-saving tasks dominate both the epic poems of yesteryear and the newspaper headlines of today. But what if we all possess the capacity to rise to the occasion when disaster strikes, to save a fellow soul from dying, to work selflessly on behalf of the poor and downtrodden?

We do, believes Bay Area-based science journalist Elizabeth Svoboda, who lays out all of the recent research on humanity’s innate heroism in her new book What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness. In addition to showing how classic heroes aren’t much different than everyday soup kitchen volunteers or even people who sacrifice a bit of time to console a sick or grieving friend, Svoboda argues that we can actually hone our brains to be better prepared for becoming a real life-saver if such a situation ever arises.

After thinking about the topic for so long, what is your definition of a hero now?

The best thing I can come up with is that heroism is doing something where you're really taking risks to help somebody else, and you're not expecting to gain from that risk to yourself. It doesn't have to be as narrow as giving up your life for someone else on the battlefield or saving someone from a burning house—as long as you are putting yourself on the line in some way, in my book, that qualifies as heroism.

And what your book is basically saying is that we can all train to be heroes, right?

That’s a good way to sum it up, or that we all have the potential for heroic actions, and that there are things we can do to prepare ourselves to increase the chances that we will be useful in such a situation and actually get involved.

Like how?

Phil Zimbardo, a psychologist in San Francisco [best known for leading the famous Stanford prison experiment that showed a human tendency toward evil, and is now taught in most courses on psychology and ethics], believes that its important to talk about psychological pitfalls that our brains fall into—like the bystander effect. The more people there are standing around watching an incident, the less likely it is that any one of them will intervene. With this extra knowledge, we can catch ourselves from falling prey to the bystander effect and say, “hey, I don’t care if no one is stepping up, I’m going to do it.”

So, it’s still in a pretty early form, but there is evidence that we can become more compassionate and more aware of the social forces that can hold us back from helping. It’s something that educators and people across the country are interested in on a broad scale.

Did you find that humans are biologically hardwired for heroism?

A lot of the research is focused more on generosity and giving than on doing heroic deeds, per se. Economist Bill Harbaugh at the University of Oregon did a really cool study about what happens in people's brains when they made the decision to give to charity. He was surprised to find that when people make these decisions, a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens was very active. That's an area of the brain associated with processing pleasure and rewards. What he took from this is that when you give of yourself to help someone else, it feels really good. That's something hopefully in the future we'll be able to capitalize on—maybe we can train people to like it even more.

Many of these brain studies seem to show over and over again that when you choose to donate to a charity you like, the brain will light up like how you feel if you won a video game or got on a roller coaster or had some other pleasurable experience. If you think about it, it makes sense: When we do something for somebody else, we are imagining how it’s going to benefit that person. It makes us feel purposeful, and I think purpose is a huge source of life satisfaction for people.

There is also research indicating that we are more likely to help when it’s just one starving face, rather than many. So the adopt-a-starving child campaign actually does work?

It really does. Some marketers have sensed this from the beginning, that people respond to faces and people respond to individual stories. But in more recent years, a psychologist named Paul Slovic has been demonstrating experimentally that we are much more likely to give to a single starving child than a large group of starving children, and even less to a group of two children that just one. This is an effect that shows up very early as we go up the number scale. And it gets worse. If we read in a newspaper that 10,000 were killed in a massacre in some country we never heard of, we are probably going to tune that right out. Even if we know intellectually that 10,000 is a lot of people, our brains are not good at processing what 10,000 deaths are going to mean. We don’t feel like we can do anything meaningful, so we tend to step back and see it as an abstraction.

Are those who have suffered themselves in life more likely to act heroically than others?

The researcher who has done a lot of this investigation is Ervin Staub. He did a study where he found people who had gone through specific bouts of suffering, some had suffered violent assaults, others had gone through natural disasters, and so on. Once they had gone through that, if they heard about Asian tsunami victims, for instance, they were more likely to say that they intended to donate to them. He thinks there is something about knowing how tough certain circumstances can be if they happen to have gone through similar circumstances.

There seems to be a sense in society that if you are doing something helpful to feel good about yourself, then it’s somehow not pure. Is it bad to feel good about doing good?

If the good deed gets done and if the person gets a benefit, I don’t see it as problematic or impure if you feel good as a result. The fact that you’re feeling good might even motivate you to do similar things in the future.

So how do we go about teaching people to be heroes?

There are a number of different approaches you can take. When I spent time with the Real Life Superheroes in New York City [a network of crime-fighters called the New York Initiative], I really saw how well they support each other in doing generous things together, bringing clothes to the homeless or walking dogs at the animal shelter. They would do this as a group or in teams. Like if you have a buddy who helps you jog every morning, getting involved with friends in these altruistic ventures can inspire you to follow through.

It also helps to think about what you have in common with other people. There was an interesting study presented at a compassionate science conference last year about an experiment where people were tapping their hands in time with someone else. When a person was assigned to complete a long task, the other person was more likely to help the person who had been tapping in time with them than helping someone who had not. So when we feel we have something in common with someone, even if it’s something that seems like it wouldn’t matter, we have more natural empathy and identification with him or her. That can motivate us to step forward.

Zimbardo advocates for everyday heroism, or taking small opportunities to help people around you. That can be as basic as buying somebody a Big Mac who looks like they need a meal or sticking up for a colleague at work. Things like that are pretty low-key, but they are also what scientists call very pro-social. When you do those kinds of acts, you get really comfortable looking for what other people need. If ever you do have a big heroism opportunity come up, you'll be better prepared to respond to the pressure of the moment. It's like everyday hero training.

And that’s the other thing: to be a hero in the classic sense, a situation requiring such a deed must present itself, right?

Certainly, there is an element of chance to it, but one of the things I’m arguing is that we don’t necessarily have to be one of the death-defying, split-second chance heroes. If you devote your life to an altruistic cause and devote a significant amount of yourself to that, that’s heroic too, but in a different way. That’s the type of selflessness that goes underappreciated all the time. I want those people to know they are just as valuable as the person who does the big front-page heroic act.

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