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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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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