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.
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?