Archive for the 'Commentary and Analysis' Category

We’re Now Contributors to Psychology Today

Some good news – we’ve been invited to contribute our insights about heroism at Psychology Today’s online magazine.  Over 13 million people visit Psychology Today’s website each month, and we welcome you to follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Our first two blog posts on heroism have already been published by Psychology Today. The first is called, Do Heroes Make Us Smarter? In this article, we describe how heroes are our greatest teachers. Heroes role-model virtue, clarify complex and paradoxical life truths, equip us with emotional intelligence, and reveal how their journey can be our journey, too.

Our second blog post is called, 5 Surprising Ways The Heroes Improve Our Lives. In this article, we discuss five non-obvious benefits of heroic action. Heroes elevate us emotionally; they heal our psychological ills; they build connections between people; they encourage us to transform ourselves for the better; and they call us to become heroes and help others.

Although we’ll be contributing to Psychology Today, we’ll still be posting essays regularly at this blog and at our Reel Heroes movie blog. Thanks to all of you for following our work, and please do continue to give us your valuable feedback.

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – Part 3: How Hero Stories Energize Us

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain the human tendency to generate heroes, benefit from them, and even become them. For as long as humans have been able to communicate through spoken language, they have told stories to each other.  These stories, we suspect, were almost always about heroes.

In Part 2, we proposed that people are nourished by hero stories in at least two essential ways. These tales serve epistemic and energizing functions. The epistemic function refers to the wisdom that hero stories impart to us. The energizing function refers to the ways that hero stories heal us, inspire us, and promote personal growth.  In Part 2 we described the epistemic or wisdom benefits of hero tales. Now we turn to the energizing benefits.

As early humans sat around fire at the end of the day, they were in need of more than just physical comfort. Yes, there was disease and injury, but undoubtedly there was also fear and despair. We suspect that people longed for some understanding of their miseries, some meaning behind the suffering they saw all around them. Storytelling provided a salve for their psychological wounds.

Hero stories served at least three important energizing functions for early man — and for contemporary humans, too. Hero stories heal psychic wounds, inspire us to action, and promote personal growth. Let’s look at each of these functions.

1.   Hero Stories Heal Psychic Wounds

Hero stories serve a healing function in several ways. First and foremost, storytelling is community-building. For early humans, just the act of gathering around fires to hear the stories established social connections with others. This sense of family or community was, and is, central to human emotional well-being.

The content of hero stories also promotes a strong sense of social identity. If the hero is an effective one, he or she performs actions that exemplify the community’s most cherished values. The affirmation of a shared worldview, told vividly in storytelling, serves an important healing function.

Group storytelling is, in a sense, a form of group therapy. Many practicing psychologists believe that group therapy owes its effectiveness to group members’ willingness to share their own personal stories of hardship and triumph. When members share their success stories, hope is engendered. Many 12-step recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, also promote healing through the open sharing of members’ stories.

2. Hero Stories Inspire Us

The classic mythic hero is often an underdog or ordinary person who is summoned on a journey full of extraordinary challenges. Our research on underdogs shows that we identify with them, root for them, and judge them to be highly inspiring when they triumph. Success on the hero journey requires courage and resilience, which are two of the most inspiring traits among the Great Eight characteristics of heroes.

According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories teach us that challenges and setbacks in life are to be embraced, not avoided. According to Campbell, obstacles help us learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”

What Campbell means, of course, is that every human life mirrors the classic hero journey, and that this great adventure, even with its painful parts, can be a source of inspiration. The ups and downs of life are inter-connected, with the downs actually being necessary to produce the ups. This fact should encourage us all to trust that the main purpose of adversity is to transform our lives in ways that we cannot even imagine.

3. Hero Stories Promote Personal Growth

Psychiatrist Karl Stern once wrote that “the evolution of human growth is an evolution from an absolute need to be loved towards a full readiness to give love.” This developmental trend nicely summarizes the transformation that a mythic hero undergoes during the hero journey. At the outset of the journey, the hero is initially missing some important quality. It is often self-confidence, humility, or an accurate sense of one’s true purpose in life.  The hero journey is always a journey toward vast personal discovery.

The discovery, moreover, is the basis of a character transformation that enables the hero to bestow a gift or boon to his or her community.  This boon is the consummate heroic act that culminates the journey. Every good hero does more than just enjoy a voyage of self-discovery. Good heroes use the gift of transformation to change the world for the better. This type of gift-giving is apparent in 12-Step recovery groups, which require members to undergo 11 steps of self-discovery followed by a 12th and final step requiring them to “carry the message” to others in need.

Perhaps Joseph Campbell said it best: “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

Author Ken Wilbur believes that heroic transformation often begins with the hero first harboring an elitist view of the world and then eventually moving toward an egalitarian view.  Famed psychologist Erik Erickson also saw the classic human trajectory as beginning with ego-constructing activities early in life and then moving toward a stage of generative activities late in life. When we are generative, we are giving to others what was given to us.

In short, the remarkable personal growth we witness in hero stories serves as a blueprint for our own growth journeys. We need only trust that the path of the hero is our own path toward redemption and growth. When we embrace that path, with all its inherent hurts and fears, we are charting our own course toward beautiful transformation. In this way, hero stories energize us toward self-improvement and selfless action.

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This series is based on a chapter that will appear in our forthcoming book, Core Concepts in the Psychology of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – Part 2: Wisdom in Hero Stories

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain how humans are drawn to hero stories, how they benefit from these stories, and how the stories help people become heroes themselves.

We suspect that early humans first told hero stories at the end of the day, in the darkness, huddled around fires. These narratives supplied meaning, hope, and a welcome escape from the miseries of life. The earliest known hero tales, such as Gilgamesh, Etana, Odysseus, and Hesiod, taught important values, offered role models, provided inspiration, and healed psychic wounds.

We propose that people benefit from hero stories in at least two essential ways. These stories serve epistemic and energizing functions. The epistemic function refers to the wisdom that hero stories impart to us. The energizing function refers to the ways that hero stories heal us, inspire us, and promote personal growth. Let’s look at these two functions in greater detail.

THE EPISTEMIC OR WISDOM FUNCTION

Theologian Richard Rohr argues that hero stories encourage people to think transrationally about ideas that seem to defy rational analysis. The word transrational means going beyond or surpassing human reason. Hero stories reveal truths and life patterns that our limited minds have trouble understanding using our best logic or rational thought. Transrational phenomena that commonly appear in hero stories include suffering, sacrifice, meaning, love, paradox, mystery, God, and eternity. These phenomena beg to be understood but cannot be fully known using conventional human reason.

Hero stories unlock the secrets of the transrational.

How do hero tales help us think transrationally? We believe that there at least three ways: Hero stories (a) reveal deep truths, (b) illuminate paradox, (c) develop emotional intelligence. Let’s examine each of these:

A. Hero Stories Reveal Deep Truths. According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories reveal life’s deepest psychological truths. They do this by sending us into deep time, meaning that they enjoy a timelessness that connects us with the past, the present, and the future. Richard Rohr notes that deep time is evident when stories contain phrases such as, “Once upon a time”, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, and “they lived happily ever after.” By grounding people in deep time, hero stories reinforce ageless truths about human existence.

Hero stories also reveal deep roles in our human social fabric. Norwegian psychologist Paul Moxnes believes that the deepest roles are archetypal family roles such as mother, child, maiden, and wise old man.  Family role archetypes abound in classic hero tales and myths, where there are an abundance of kings and queens, parents, stepparents, princesses, children, and stepchildren. Interestingly, Moxnes’ research shows that even if hero stories do not explicitly feature these deep role characters, we will project these roles onto the characters. His conclusion is that the family unit is an ancient device for understanding our social world.

B. Hero Stories Illuminate Paradox. Hero stories shed light on meaningful life paradoxes. As author G. K. Chesterton once observed, paradox is truth standing on her head to attract attention. Most people have trouble unpacking the value of paradoxes unless the contradictions contained within them are illustrated inside a good story. It turns out that hero stories are saturated with paradoxical truths, such as those mentioned by Joseph Campbell in the quote that began Part 1 of this series. Let’s look at each of them:

* Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Carl Jung is famous for saying, “what you resist persists.” Every human being encounters difficult people and challenging issues in life. Hero stories teach us that avoiding these people and issues is not the answer. Once we confront our dragons, they can become the seeds of our redemption.

* Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. What Campbell means here is that when heroes face their greatest fears, they are entering the dragon’s lair. And when heroes slay the dragon, they are slaying their false selves or former selves, thereby allowing their true heroic selves to emerge.

* Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. In the opening act of every hero story, the hero leaves her safe, familiar world and enters a dangerous, unfamiliar world. Going on a pilgrimage of some type is a necessary component of the hero journey. Hero stories teach us that we have to leave home in order to find ourselves.

* Where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. The hero’s journey is far from over once the dragon has been slain. Campbell observes that the now-transformed hero in myth and legend will now return to his original familiar world and transform it in significant ways. The hero, once alone on his journey, becomes united and in communion with the world.

C. Hero Stories Develop Emotional Intelligence. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that children’s fairy tales were useful in helping people, especially children, understand emotional experience. With their many dark, foreboding symbols and themes, such as witches, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and death, these heroic fairy tales allow people to experience and resolve their fears.

Bettelheim believed that even the darkest of fairy tales, such as those by the Brothers Grimm, add clarity to confusing emotions. The hero of the story emerges as a role model by demonstrating how one’s fears can be overcome. The darkness of fairy tales allows children to face their anxieties and grow emotionally, thus better preparing them for the challenges of adulthood.

In Part 3 of this series, we explore the energizing function of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic. Here is Part 3.

This series is based on a chapter that will appear in our forthcoming book, Core Concepts in the Psychology of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – Part 1: Evening Fire Rituals

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

“We have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

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We begin with a day in the life of early humans.

Life is hard. Lifespans are short. An early death is the norm, either from disease or from danger. At night, tribes huddle around fires for warmth, food, safety, and security. But they also gather around community fires for something else that is nearly as important.

They come to hear stories.

The elders of the tribe know that because life is nasty, brutish, and short (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes), the members of the tribe are afraid. Those members – many of them sick, hungry, injured, or tired — seek some understanding of their misery, some sense of meaning to buoy their spirits.

As the elders begin reciting their stories, the huddled masses seated around the fires, in desperate need of comforting, lean forward in eager anticipation. They may not be consciously aware of what they need from these stories, but their need is strong nevertheless.

The stories told by the elders are hero stories. They tell of ordinary men who are called to go on great journeys or who face formidable life challenges. The protagonists in these stories are described as small, weak underdogs who must transform themselves in important ways to overcome long odds to succeed. These heroes receive assistance from enchanted and unlikely sources. Remarkable cunning and courage are required for these men to triumph. Once successful, these heroes return to their original tribe to bestow a boon to the entire community.

As tribe members soak in these inspiring hero stories, they themselves are affected in profoundly positive ways. Thanks to these stories, fears are allayed. Hopes are nourished. Important values of strength and resilience have been underscored. Life now has greater purpose and meaning.

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Today’s humans are no different from early humans in their thirst for heroes and heroic leadership. The attraction to greatness in other human beings is as strong as ever. Our goal here is to outline a set of psychological events responsible for the powerful and inescapable allure of strong heroic figures.

We propose that a complex web of phenomena exist that capture the human drive to create heroes in our minds and hearts, in storytelling, in our behavior, and in virtually every crevice of every human culture. We call this web of phenomena the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

We use the term dynamic, and its multiple meanings, intentionally. In its noun form, dynamic refers to an interactive system or process. Used as an adjective, dynamic describes this system or process as energizing and always in motion, a system that drives people toward heroes and toward hero storytelling.

We argue that the human desire to generate heroes implicates a complex system of psychological forces all geared toward developing heroes, retaining them as long as they prove psychologically useful and, yes, even discarding heroes when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic can almost be described as a story in itself, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

At the beginning sits our craving for heroes, borne out of a longing for an understanding of the vicissitudes of life. Our early ancestors gathered around fires at night for reasons that went far beyond the physical benefits produced by fire. We propose that for these early humans, the drive to create heroism in their minds, in their stories, and in their culture was as necessary for their mental and emotional well-being as the fire was for their physical well-being.

And we suggest that humans today are no different at all.

Our human craving for heroes, our need for the psychological benefits that heroes offer, and our desires over time either to retain our heroes or to repudiate them, all comprise the constellation of phenomena that are implicated in the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

And yes, an important part of the dynamic — maybe the most important  — is that it offers a framework for understanding the drive that all of us have to become heroes ourselves, given the right circumstances.

In Part 2 of this series, we dive into the details of the psychological forces underlying the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.  Here is Part 2.

This series is based on a chapter that will appear in our forthcoming book, Core Concepts in the Psychology of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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Constructing Heroic Associations: Making a Good Line Better

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

There are many iconic quotes or lines from books, movies and television that crystallize an image of a hero, or a heroic moment. Earlier we discussed Nathan Hale, and his unforgettable last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” In Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, the image of Clint saying “Go ahead, make my day,” is unforgettable. Such quotes create a clear, sharp and unforgettable image. But some memorable moments are made more so by readers and audiences making a good phrase even better, thus making the words even more heroic and more memorable.

Several examples are notable. We have written before about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, and the related importance of sidekicks for many such heroes. For Holmes, that person is his friend and colleague Dr. John Watson. If people know only one specific Holmes quote, it is likely to be this comment to his partner, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” That’s all well and good, but in the four Conan Doyle novels, and his dozens of stories, Holmes never utters that phrase. He says “elementary” often enough, and he frequently says “my dear Watson,” but he never links the two. But the two go so naturally together, that they create a better image of Holmes and his relation to Watson than the many phrases that only come close to the memorable combination.

Speaking of Clint Eastwood, people easily recall one of the last scenes in Dirty Harry where the villain is deciding whether to reach for his pistol. He’s uncertain whether Harry has any more bullets in his .44 magnum handgun. Harry snarls, “Do you feel lucky?” It’s a popular culture phrase. But there’s one problem. Eastwood never says it. Rather, he says, “You’ve got to ask yourself a question. €˜Do I feel lucky?’” But the phrase as remembered is more natural and quotable, and can be used conversationally more easily. And in fact, Dirty Harry follows up his statement above with “Well, do you punk?”

Another example from film: In the well-loved movie Field of Dreams the character played by Kevin Costner hears a voice in his cornfield, “If you build it, they will come.” That memorable phrase is often used in conversation. It makes a point about how activity of various kinds can attract others, and it is nicely associated with the characters in the film. Except again, that’s not what Costner says. The voice he hears refers to a single individual, perhaps Shoeless Joe Jackson, or perhaps Costner’s father. It says: “If you build it, he will come.”

One of television’s most iconic series, subsequently made into a number of films and several sequel series, was Star Trek. And fans love Captain Kirk’s line, “Beam me up, Scotty.” This classic phrase underscores the role of one of Kirk’s sidekicks, Scotty, who frequently is called upon to transport Kirk safely from danger. But once again, this exact phrase is never uttered.

One final example:  Watch the movie Casablanca again, and listen carefully. Do Ingrid Bergman or Humphrey Bogart, playing Ilsa Lund and Rick Blaine, ever smile at Dooley Wilson, the piano player, and demand, “Play it again, Sam”? The answer is no. They say variations of the line, but never that exact line.

Why does this happen? Human beings have a need to organize experience in coherent ways. We create meaning, and construct memories that make the flow of events we encounter even more meaningful. Vivid images, such as the Iwo Jima statue in Washington, and pithy quotes, such as “Make my day,” stay with us. If we can make them even easier to remember than they are already, our constructive memories will do that for us.

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References

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.

Heroism as an Emergent Property

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

It seems like it should be very simple-– the definition of heroism. And yet, as we’ve seen, any attempts to delineate a definitive set of properties or criteria result in debate, disagreement and dissatisfaction. The more we try to pin down the concept, the more amorphous it seems. This is because heroism is not an intrinsic property, but an emergent one. In the words of the great philosopher Anonymous, “Heroes are made, not born.”

This is not to say that the potential for heroism does not exist in everyone, but acts of heroism are decidedly situational. The woman who saved her platoon in Afghanistan may be useless when her neighbor’s cat is stuck up a tree –- she’s afraid of heights. Or the man who quietly devoted ten years of his life to caring for his sick mother may not be the person you want around if you’re drowning –- he never learned to swim. The scientist whose vaccine saved countless lives may lack the upper body strength to pull an unconscious adult from a burning building. The great orator whose speeches inspired millions may lack the esoteric knowledge needed to assist somebody having an epileptic seizure.

However, on another day, an undistinguished man with a questionable past may be sitting on his front porch, hear a cry for help, and find himself rescuing several kidnapped women from their captor. Or perhaps a woman who was previously known only as a baseball player’s daughter may be walking down the street, minding her own business, and find herself catching a one-year-old baby who fell from a fire escape. Or perhaps a middle-aged construction worker, waiting for a train with his two kids, will find himself saving the life of a seizure-stricken stranger who fell upon the tracks. Or perhaps a shopper at the supermarket, thinking only of taking home some groceries, may find himself performing CPR on the still body of a child, bringing her back to life.

Ordinary people, ordinary days, ordinary circumstances that suddenly blossom into extraordinary events. What seems inevitable is averted. Like life itself, heroism is a thing of self-organizing complexity, emergent, synergistic-– an antidote to entropy.

It is inevitable that we should seek to understand the existence and nature of heroism. Seeking to understand is one of the essential qualities of humanity and we are rightfully amazed at a universe that can give rise to beings who can conceive of such a sublime, but slippery, idea. Yet we also must realize that concepts in the abstract have no perfect analogs in the physical world. The zen concept of a chair is perfect to the intellect, but only infinite imperfect variations exist in reality. We can calculate the mathematical properties of a perfect circle, but no such thing exists outside the realm of pure thought. When the abstract is made real, it is unique and unprecedented-– it is emergent-– and, while it may have aspects in common with past examples, attempting to formalize the concept in absolute terms is like trying to psychoanalyze a person not yet born.

Perhaps, then, the best way to define heroism is to understand that heroism defines itself.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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Heroes in the Movies: Five Myths That Need Busting

By Scott T. Allison

For the past several months, I’ve been reviewing movies with my good friend Greg Smith at our Reel Heroes website.  Our reviews focus not only on the quality of a movie but also on the quality of the hero and the hero story within the movie.  It’s been great fun, and I’ve gotten a lot out of it, particularly a love for those cookie-dough bites that our local theater sells.

We’ve reviewed about 35 movies and I’m noticing some interesting trends.  Yes, I’ve been going to movies my whole life and have always enjoyed good movies and good hero stories.  But writing these reviews has sensitized me to story details and character analysis.  Whereas I used to sit in the theater, mindlessly munching on popcorn, now I’m sitting there with my cookie-dough bites actually thinking about the various characters, the functions they serve, and whether their actions are consistent with current theory and research on heroes.

So are movie heroes good heroes?

The conclusions I’m reaching are not terribly encouraging.  Granted, it’s the summer blockbuster season and Greg assures me that the movie studios are saving their best films for the fall and winter seasons.  Still, as we watch each movie, I’m asking myself, “Well, that was fun, but didn’t we just see this same movie last week?”  It’s true that the names of the characters are different, and the costumes they’re wearing are different.  But these summer movies are becoming almost interchangeable.

I have no doubt that the makers of Hollywood films are smart people.  The problem isn’t with their intelligence, or with the effort put into film-making.  In fact, the effort is astounding.  There is no shortage of breathtaking scenes and scenery in today’s movies.  The CGI effects are simply jaw-dropping.  And at the end, during the film credits, hundreds and hundreds of people’s names scroll down.  Each film is an amazing collective effort.

The problem, I suspect, is that filmmakers’ goals are somewhat askew.  Instead of aiming to produce great movies with great hero stories, they aim to make movies that make money. Armed with tried-and-true formulae and professional script doctors, movie studios will only invest vast sums of money into films that aim low and then invariably hit that mark.

Movie-makers appear to worship at the altar of five myths about heroes:

1) The bigger the muscles, the better the hero.  Maybe I’m just envious, especially in light of my cookie-dough bite obsession, but Hugh Jackman is now “Huge” Jackman.  Dwayne Johnson isn’t a rock, he’s a continent.  Apparently, heroism doesn’t involve selflessness and self-sacrifice.  It’s more about being able to lift enormous amounts of weight in the gym.  Look how superheroes have evolved into muscle-bound freaks.  Christopher Reeve’s Superman is downright anorexic compared to Henry Cavill’s rendition.

2) The more times a hero fights the villain, the better the hero.  The great comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, identified a pattern in the structure of the classic hero story from his observation of thousands of ancient hero myths.  Yes, in a good hero story there is a fateful encounter with a villain.  No, these encounters do not need to continue ad infinitum.

3) Heroes’ bones are unbreakable.  In almost every movie, we see heroes surviving several hundred-foot falls, impossibly violent collisions, and fiery bomb blasts.  Movie heroes get clobbered by steel beams, leap off speeding trains, and are punched senseless by bad guys.  Yet they suffer nary a scratch.

4) The longer the story, the better the hero.  Hollywood filmmakers are epic-philes who fail to realize that after two hours, most audiences are done.  Finished.  We don’t need two and a half or three hour-long marathons.  My cookie-dough bites just don’t last that long.

5) Heroes are only male.  Over 90% of the movies we’ve reviewed feature a male hero. The Heat, The Call, and Epic were exceptions to the rule.  Apparently, when the emphasis is on muscles and fighting, women don’t fit the bill.  How sad that the movies industry has virtually blacklisted women from heroic roles.

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Earlier this year, Greg and I watched a delightful movie called Mud that runs only two hours and garnered a meager $20 million at the box office –- chump change compared to the hundreds of millions earned by Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Fast & Furious 6.

None of the characters in Mud has huge muscles. There aren’t endless fight scenes or constant explosions or dramatic falls from great distances.  Instead, we meet a young boy who tries to help a mysterious stranger, and who falls in love with a young girl.  Both of these relationships cause him pain and he is forced to grow emotionally.

This is hardly exciting stuff if you worship at the altar of the five myths above.  But as of mid-July, Mud is the best movie of the year.  The hero of the story does the right thing and discovers his missing inner qualities that help him rise above adversity.

In the movies, we need more Muds and fewer duds.

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Why Scientists Who Study Good and Evil Are Vulnerable To Criticism

By Scott T. Allison

Roy Baumeister, an eminent professor of psychology at Florida State University, has spent much of his professional life studying the causes of evil.  Last year he published an article in which he lamented a problem with approaching evil from a scientific standpoint: “Social scientists are not supposed to let their values cloud their judgment, because doing so can impede the impartial search for truth,” he said.  Yet when scientists remain impartial about evil, they are often criticized for seeming to condone it.

Scientists who study evil attempt to understand perpetrators’ motives and attitudes, and while doing so, scientists may begin viewing evil actions as less atrocious than how others judge them.  After all, those who commit evil do not regard their actions as evil. And so understanding an evil-doer’s mindset may diminish (even slightly) the scientist’s beliefs about the evilness of the perpetrator’s actions. According to Baumeister, scientists who study evil “carry the moral risk of mitigating their condemnation of some of the worst things that human beings do.”

Baumeister concludes that “if we as social scientists restrict our focus to actions that everyone, including the perpetrator, agrees are evil, we will have almost nothing to study.  It is therefore necessary to define evil as in the eye of the beholder.”  In short, evil must be defined in a way that is “not strongly tethered to objective reality.”

In my studies of heroism, I’ve encountered a similar issue.  There isn’t as much consensus about what defines a hero as one would think.  Most people agree that heroes perform great actions, but one observer’s idea of a great action may be very different from that of another observer.  Just as evil-doers dismiss the idea that they are evil-doers, heroes themselves often dismiss the idea that they are heroes.  As such, my co-author George Goethals and I have adopted a view of heroism that is identical to that of Baumeister’s definition of evil:  It’s in the eye of the beholder.

This definition is very unsatisfying to people who claim to know the objective definition of heroism.  Goethals and I have asked hundreds of people to list their heroes and our position is that it’s not our place, as social scientists, to judge people as “wrong”.  If tennis players report that tennis great Roger Federer is their hero, we are not going to tell them they are mistaken.  If aspiring actresses list Meryl Streep as their hero, we will report it without condemning their judgment.  Our goal is to try to understand their reasoning behind their choices.

Can I, or should I, instruct my daughter about what a hero is from my own personal perspective?  Yes.  In my role as a father, I should probably share my values about heroic action with my child.  But as a social scientist, I just report the results of our surveys and try to make sense of them.  In doing so, I know I open myself up for criticism.

Ari Kohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska, for example, took issue with our inclusion of basketball great LeBron James as a hero in our 2012 article in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.  James appears as a hero in that article by virtue of the fact that he was listed as a hero by about a dozen of our respondents in our large-scale survey of people’s heroes.  According to Kohen, James appears in our article “presumably because of his skill as a basketball player…. But the example doesn’t really work because James isn’t really a hero in the first place. There’s nothing heroic about being good at sports.”

Kohen and I may agree that athletic prowess is not especially heroic, but that won’t stop me from reporting what people say when asked who their heroes are.  Goethals and I believe that people’s beliefs about heroes, however misguided they may or may not be, are worth studying from a scientific perspective.  Kohen goes on to say that the people we choose to profile “generally aren’t heroic, but far worse is that [Allison] tries to defend those choices by appealing to the relativistic notion that heroism is entirely in the eye of the beholder.”

To that I plead guilty as charged.  People have very different ideas about who society’s heroes are.  My goal isn’t to support or refute their choices, but merely to explain them.  People believe their heroes are either highly moral, highly competent, or both.  Some people believe that heroism requires a lifetime of self-sacrifice; others believe that one self-sacrificing action is sufficient for heroism.  Opinions vary widely.  But we have found some common patterns.  For example, people tend to believe that heroes possess many or all of The Great Eight traits of heroessmart, strong, caring, reliable, resilient, selfless, charismatic, and inspiring. 

Kohen’s criticism of our work is mild compared to some other people’s criticisms.  Take a look at one scathing review of our Heroic Leadership book at Amazon.com.  Again, this reviewer doesn’t like our approach of reporting people’s lists of heroes and scientifically studying them.  You are also welcome to read my response to his diatribe on that same page, right below his review.

Here’s some encouraging news for people who don’t like many of the individuals that people list as their heroes:  Goethals and I have found that as people get older, they become more discriminating in their choice of heroes.  People tend to outgrow celebrity  and sports heroes who only show signs of competence but not much morality.  In our 2012 article and in our Heroic Leadership book, we call heroes whom we outgrow transitional heroes.  We’ve found that as people get older, they are less likely to list LeBron James, Roger Federer, or Meryl Streep as heroes. They are more likely to list Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Wesley Autrey, the New York subway hero who threw himself on the train tracks to save the life of a complete stranger.

As a social scientist who should remain objective about my reporting of heroes, I shouldn’t express my opinion about the natural maturation process leading people to place greater weight on morality than on competence when choosing heroes.  But I can’t resist saying I’m glad to hear it.

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Heroes Coming and Going: Our Sensitivity to the Changing Fortunes of Others

By Scott Allison, Athena Hensel, & George Goethals

People are highly sensitive to changing fortunes. We closely monitor our own changing fortunes, of course, but we also show strong sensitivity to the shifting fortunes of others. We want to know who’s doing better and who’s doing worse than they were before. Is Obama’s approval rating going up or down? Is China’s economy still growing rapidly? Are public schools in decline? Is my friend’s health improving?

We’re drawn to changes in our social environment because they may have implications for our own well-being, or because we find those changes to be a source of drama or entertainment. We are especially dazzled by unexpected changes in fortunes – the triumphs of obscure underdogs and the failures of established powerhouses.

In short, when we witness changing fortunes, we are often witness to either the creation of heroes or the demise of heroes (Allison & Goethals, 2011).

With the NCAA basketball tournament soon reaching a crescendo, conversations at the electronic watercoolers — Facebook and Twitter — are focusing on the changing fortunes of various teams. Ohio University, for example, is this year’s surprise success in the tournament. Earlier the twitterverse exploded with Duke University’s surprising exit at the hands of unheralded Lehigh University.

The labels we assign to teams such as Ohio and Lehigh tend to reflect our observations of their changing fortunes. Historically unsuccessful teams that finally enjoy some success are said to be plucky underdogs, up-and-coming programs, rising upstarts, and Cinderella stories. We seem to have fewer labels for fallen giants. We briefly revel in their misfortune, as befitting our schadenfreudian tendencies, but our focus is usually more on celebrating the unexpected successes of the downtrodden.

Changing fortunes can result in changing categorical labels. Gonzaga University’s sustained success in basketball has expelled them from the category of underdog. Butler University’s back-to-back appearances in the final championship game placed them on a strong trajectory toward top dog status, but the school’s relatively poor year this past season may have put their graduation from underdog standing on hold. Sometimes we just aren’t sure whether a team meets the criteria for underdog status, and when a team is in category limbo we may become especially attentive to cues that will pull them into one grouping or another.

Whereas our categorization of teams into underdog or top dog groups would seem to depend on their history of success, a change in that categorization would appear to depend on the direction that a team is heading and whether the team has sustained that directional change.

Let’s first look at the history variable. No team better fit the underdog prototype than did the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. The Soviet Union had won every gold medal since 1960 and the U.S. was a predictable flop during those years. Stunningly, the 1980 U.S. team defeated the Soviets to win the gold medal, but the Americans had been entrenched underdogs for so long that no one dared to suggest that their change in fortune was anything more than an aberration. The dismal U.S. performance at the subsequent Olympic hockey competitions confirmed their continued status as underdogs.

In some areas of human judgment, the direction of change appears to matter more than one’s absolute position. For example, people are happier when their 3 dollars grows to 5 dollars than when their 8 dollars shrinks to 6 dollars. Similarly, we’re more attracted to people who dislike us but are starting to warm up to us than we are to people who like us but are beginning to criticize us. Sensitivity to direction of change is high in these contexts.

But the direction of change would appear to matter less in our practice of labeling people. Our categorizations of people into underdog and top dog groups are glued tightly in place, especially in the sporting world. Even during lean years, baseball’s New York Yankees are viewed as behemoths. Duke, the UNC Chapel Hill, and Kentucky have enjoyed so many decades of sustained success in basketball that it would take decades of futility for their top dog labels to wear off.

Outside the world of sports, categorical changes are volatile and more permanent. Consider the case of MySpace, which a decade ago was the unquestioned king of social media. MySpace had no rivals and was firmly entrenched as the top dog when Facebook took the social media world by storm and quickly rendered MySpace irrelevant. Almost overnight in the business world, a David can beat a Goliath and there is no question that Goliath will never get up again. Google+ is currently trying, without much success, to do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace. If Google+ fails, it will be yet another David we’ll never hear from again.

Other corporate examples abound: In the mobile phone industry, the BlackBerry quickly went from being cool and hip to becoming a dinosaur thanks to the cooler and hipper iPhone. Sometimes top dogs fall, not because of the new top dog on the block, but because several hungry underdogs eat into their business. Crocs shoes – those multicolored rubber clogs – came and went because cheaper knock-offs appeared on the market.

Whereas no one gives MySpace or Blackberry much of a chance of regaining their top dog status, there is always plenty of hope for individual athletes or sports teams to rebound from a downturn. The Pittsburgh Pirates have suffered 19 consecutive losing seasons, the longest streak in North American professional sports history. In a non-sporting business environment the Pirates’ survival prospects would be bleak indeed, but every year brings new hope for the lowly in athletics.

And speaking of hope for the underdog, the story of Jeremy Lin is a fascinating one. Deemed a marginal player from Harvard University, Lin was cut from two NBA teams and was languishing at the end of the New York Knicks bench for a long time before his coach, out of desperation, brought him into a game on February 5, 2012. He stunned everyone by scoring 25 points and leading the Knicks to victory. His greatness on the court continued game after game, and “Linsanity” was born – fans were erupting into a Beatlemania-like frenzy whenever Lin touched the ball.

Not surprisingly, Lin has been unable to sustain his phenomenal level of performance. Linsanity turned into Lin over his head. Perhaps the fragility of underdog success is what makes that success so very special to us. Cinderella may have lived happily ever after, but most sporting underdogs only enjoy the Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame before they retreat and ultimately disappear from our radar screens. We revel in their changing fortunes for the better, but we fully expect that change to be an ephemeral one.

The Goliaths of the world attract a peculiar mixture of admiration, envy, and resentment, but those Goliaths give us a sort of comforting stability that we need. Our sensitivity to changing fortunes, and our delight in perceiving those changes, probably depends on people’s stable fortunes remaining the norm in life.

References

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them.  New York: Oxford University Press.

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The Hero Round Table Conference This November in Michigan

By Scott T. Allison

This November 9th and 10th, 2013, a one-of-a-kind event will take place — The Hero Round Table Conference, to be held in Flint, Michigan. This is the first interdisciplinary conference on heroism ever held, and it has been masterfully organized by Matt Langdon, founder of the Hero Construction Company.

Matt Langdon (pictured below) has lined up a group of speakers whom he calls “an extraordinary group of experts from the fields of psychology, education, business, sports, philosophy, and entertainment”. Speakers from around the world will be sharing the latest developments on theories, research, and practices of heroism.  And YOU can attend, too!

The star speaker is Dr. Phil Zimbardo, the world famous social psychologist who currently heads up the Heroic Imagination Project.   Yours truly, Dr. Scott Allison of the University of Richmond, will also be speaking, having published two books on heroes and running a blog on real heroes and a blog on ‘reel’ heroes.

In the field of education, speakers will include Zoe Weil, the legendary humane educator, author, and speaker; Christian Long, an international education consultant with experience studying heroism in the classroom; Aaron Donaghy, who transformed the concepts of charity and heroism for students using the GO-effect; and Ann Medlock, who has spent decades discovering and promoting heroes through the Giraffe Heroes Program.

Speakers from the realm of business include George Brymer, author of “Vital Integrities” and “Franciscanomics” and the creator of The Leading from the Heart Workshop; Dr. David Rendall, who shares his freak factor with audiences around the world as a speaker and author; Whitney Johnson, author of Dare to Dream, who suggests tapping into the power of the female hero’s journey; and Doug Knight, a non-profiteer making the connections between heroic action and the non-profit business world.

Additional speakers include Mike Dilbeck, the conference’s keynote speaker, who lays out the steps to heroic action in his everyday heroes presentations to audiences around the country; Jocelyn Stevenson, a star of children’s television and one of the pioneers for educating through television shows; Jeremiah Anthony, who, frustrated with the efforts of professional anti-bullying speakers, changed his school by himself; Pat Solomon, who created the documentary Finding Joe to honor the work of Joseph Campbell; and Dr. Ari Kohen, who teaches heroism at the University of Nebraska and is the host of the podcast, The Hero Report.

Finally, the conference is privileged to have speakers such as Nolan Harrison, who played defense in the NFL for 10 years and now works to help former players as a senior director at the NFL players association; Drew Jacob, professional adventurer, currently making his way from the source of the Mississippi to the mouth of the Amazon River under his own power; and Ethan King, who is changing the world through his project, Charity Ball, which provides soccer balls to kids living in poverty.

There will also be dozens of breakout sessions, featuring Chad Ellsworth from Building Heroes, Andrew Jones from Philosopher’s Stone, Sean Furey from the Hero Support Network, Greg Smith, from Agile Writers and Reel Heroes, Jensen Kyle from Moral Heroes, Elaine Kinsella from the University of Limerick in Ireland.  Students will present posters on their work in the areas of altruism, the bystander effect, personality constructs, and pro-social behavior.

You can attend this great event by visiting the Hero Round Table website.  Please check out the promo video: