The famed comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” I suspect that this bit of wisdom describes your life, or at least will describe your life if your plans haven’t yet been derailed. Campbell’s observation most definitely characterizes my life as a college professor, especially the circuitous path that brought me to the study of heroism.
Studying heroism was not on my to-do list as a young assistant professor. Years ago I was interested not in great people, but in the types of situations that give rise to cooperative behavior in groups. I published several studies that examined the conditions under which people placed their group’s welfare ahead of their own individual welfare (Allison & Messick, 1990). Not surprisingly, these conditions were hard to find, as people tend to show self-serving biases in their distributions of resources and in their self-assessments of their morals and abilities. I was struck by the ways in which subtle variations in the environment could lead people down the path of either selfishness or selflessness (Allison, McQueen, & Schaerfl, 1992). It wasn’t quite heroism research but it was close.
Then in 1991, I found myself teaching a “great books” humanities course to freshmen students at the University of Richmond. The course was multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural in its emphasis, and it required students to read such books as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Plato’s Symposium, Darwin’s Origin of Species, the Analycts of Confucius, Naguib Mahfouz’s Fountain and Tomb, Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, and many other great texts. What most caught my attention were the two epic stories on the course syllabus: The Epic of Sundiata told by the Malinke people of Africa, and the epic novel Monkey (also known as Journey to the West) written by Wu Cheng’en during China’s Ming dynasty.
These two epic adventures were composed in different time periods and in different parts of the world, and they bore a striking resemblance to the two great western epic stories I had read in high school and in college, namely, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Epic of Sundiata tells the story of the hero Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire. Born an ugly hunchback, Sundiata was prophesized to become a great ruler of the Mali people. The existing king felt threatened by this prophesy and thus banished Sundiata from the kingdom, but years later Sundiata returned to defeat the king and establish the great empire. In Monkey, a brave young pilgrim named Tripitaka must travel to strange faraway places to retrieve sacred information needed to enlighten the entire Chinese people. Tremendous courage, wisdom, and virtue are needed by Tripitaka to accomplish this objective.
People’s fascination with old dead legendary figures caught my attention. Nearly every psychological theory I had encountered was centered on people’s fascination with living people, not dead people, and so I sensed an opportunity to study how human beings evaluate the dead. This led my colleagues and I to write articles on the death positivity bias – the tendency of people to evaluate the dead more favorably than the living. It also led to our discovery of the frozen in time effect – people’s tendency to resist changing their evaluations of the dead even when new information surfaces that challenges that evaluation.
Then, plain old good luck came my way. In 2005, my dear friend and colleague, George Goethals, who had toiled for decades at Siberia-like Williams College in Massachusetts, decided to move south and join me on the faculty at the University of Richmond. Goethals came with an expertise in leadership and an impeccable scholarly record. He and I embarked on a research program exploring people’s love for underdogs, and this research evolved slowly into work focusing on triumphant underdogs who became exemplary leaders and heroes. Our interest in underdogs, his exceptional scholarship on U.S. Presidents, and my research on our reverence for the dead, all eventually led to the two books on heroes that we’ve written today.
“Serendipity,” wrote scientist Pek van Andel, “is the art of discovering an unsought finding.” Many unsought events had to come together for George and me to embark on our exploration of heroes. If any one of these events hadn’t happened, it’s very unlikely that this blog would exist or that our hero books would be written. The nice thing about serendipity is that it has our best interests in mind. We need only remain open to unexpected opportunities that serendipity throws our way.
Allison, S. T., Messick, D. M., & Goethals, G. R. (1989). On being better but not smarter than others: The Muhammad Ali effect. Social Cognition, 7, 275-296.
Allison, S. T., & Messick, D. M. (1990). Social decision heuristics and the use of shared resources. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 3, 195-204.
Goethals, G. R., Messick, D. M., & Allison, S. T. (1991). The uniqueness bias: Studies of constructive social comparison. In J. Suls & B. Wills (Eds.), Social Comparison: Contemporary theory and research (pp. 149-176). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Allison, S. T., McQueen, L. R., & Schaerfl, L. M. (1992). Social decision making processes and the equal partitionment of shared resources. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 23-42.
Samuelson, C. D., & Allison, S. T. (1994). Cognitive factors affecting the use of social decision heuristics when sharing resources. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 58, 1-27.
Roch, S., Samuelson, C., Allison, S., & Dent, J. (2000). Cognitive load and the equality heuristic: A two stage model of resource overconsumption in small groups. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 83, 185-212.
Eylon, D., & Allison, S. T. (2005). The frozen in time effect in evaluations of the dead. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1708-1717.
Kim, J., Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Goethals, G., Markus, M., McGuire, H., & Hindle, S. (2008). Rooting for (and then Abandoning) the Underdog. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 2550-2573.
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2008). Deifying the Dead and Downtrodden: Sympathetic Figures as Inspirational Leaders. In C.L. Hoyt, G. R. Goethals, & D. R. Forsyth (Eds.), Leadership at the crossroads: Psychology and leadership. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Beggan, J.K., & Bachelder, J. (2009). The demise of leadership: Positivity and negativity in evaluations of dead leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 115-129.
Davis, J. L., Burnette, J. L., Allison, S. T., & Stone, H. (2011). Against the odds: Academic underdogs benefit from incremental theories. Social Psychology of Education, 14, 331-346.
Goethals, G. R. & Allison, S. T. (2012). Making heroes: The construction of courage, competence and virtue. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 183-235.
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2012). The seven paradoxes of heroism. Personality and Social Psychology Connections. http://spsptalks.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/the-seven-paradoxes-of-heroism
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals. New York: Routledge.