Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Are Men More Likely Than Women to Become Heroes and Villains?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The world recently observed the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster in which 1,514 people died after the ship struck an iceberg.  Much has been said about the “women and children first” rule that determined who would be the lucky ones to board the limited number of lifeboats.  Editorial cartoons of the day honored the heroic men who sacrificed their lives to allow others to live.  While gender roles have certainly changed since 1912, studies show that there is still considerable pressure on males to protect women from danger and to place their own well-being behind that of women.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister at Florida State University thinks he knows why men seem so self-sacrificing.  In nearly all human societies “men are expendable,” he proclaims.  And with expendability comes the kind of heroism shown by the men of the Titanic who drowned so that others would live.

Understanding Baumeister’s argument requires an examination of his larger thesis, namely, that evolution has endowed men and women with different motivations and priorities.  In his recent book, Is There Anything Good About Men, Baumeister first examines our patriarchal society — the inescapable fact that men have long dominated the political and economic spheres of our culture.  Men are more likely than women to be presidents, prime ministers, and members of Congress and Parliament.  Men are also more likely to be CEOs of major corporations and wielders of power on Wall Street.  We also see more men discovering cures for diseases, exploring space, and creating great works of art.

Feminists have argued that this gender gap in power, success, and wealth is due to men’s deliberate attempt to oppress women.  Baumeister does not disagree with this assertion.  He does, however, challenge us to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.

Baumeister’s first observation is that while there are no doubt more men than women at the top of society, there are also more men at the bottom.  Men are far more likely than women to commit crimes and to serve time in prison.  Men are also more likely to suffer from severe mental disabilities; they are more likely to die in wars; they are more likely to be homeless; and they are more likely to have the worst and most dangerous jobs in society.

In short, Baumeister argues that men go to extremes more than women.  “In an important sense,” he writes, “men really are better AND worse than women.”

Why is this the case?  Baumeister points to biology and evolution.  Recent research using DNA analysis reveals that today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.  Throughout all of human history, it is estimated that perhaps about 80% of women but only 40% of men have been able to reproduce.  “It would be shocking,” writes Baumeister, “if these vastly different reproductive odds for men and women failed to produce some personality differences.”

Because men have faced a more daunting challenge in reproducing, they may have evolved to be more risk-taking than women.  Nature may have designed men to take chances, try new things, be creative, and explore bold possibilities.  Becoming a hero who succeeded in these risky endeavors may have given men a better chance to attract a woman with whom to reproduce.

Baumeister believes that because women are able only to bear a few children in their lifetime, their priority is to “play it safe” and invest time in developing close intimate relationships.  Women have done best by minimizing risks.

The key to understanding why women have evolved to avoid physical risk lies in understanding what drives population growth.  Baumeister argues that population growth depends much more upon there being plenty of women than upon there being plenty of men.  “To maximize reproduction,” says Baumeister, “a culture needs all the wombs it can get, but only a few penises can do the job.”  If a society loses half its men, the next generation can still be full-sized.  But if it loses half its women, the size of the next generation will be significantly smaller.  As a result, most cultures keep their women out of harm’s way while using men to do the risky work.

In short, men were designed by nature to take chances, risk their lives, and strive — mostly unsuccessfully — for greatness.

According to Baumeister, the emergence of gender inequality may have little to do with men pushing women down in a patriarchal conspiracy.  Rather, it came from naturally evolving forces that drove expendable men to seek out wealth, knowledge, and power at great risk to themselves and with the goal of improving their reproductive chances.

This brings us back to the Titanic and the men who heroically died so that women and children would live.  While nature may have designed men for this type of bold heroic sacrifice, this same brazenness sends many men spiraling downward toward a life of crime and other villainous activities.  Men are thus hard-wired for both greatness and wretchedness.  It’s a provocative idea, and it’s not without its detractors.  But it is also an idea well-worth thinking about.

References

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

Baumeister, R. (2010). Is There Anything Good About Men?: How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men. New York: Oxford University Press.

The Resurrection of Christ is the Hero’s Transformation

Resurrection1By Scott T. Allison

Every Easter season, about three billion Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. In an earlier blog post, we discussed the heroism of Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. For Christians, resurrection signifies the immense power of God, and it validates who Jesus claimed to be, namely, the son of God.

But there is more.

According to many scholars, including Joseph Campbell and Richard Rohr, the rise, suffering and resurrection of Jesus are all significant because they model the human journey of growth, setback, and heroic transformation. I use the word “model” deliberately. We’re all destined to rise, fall, and become resurrected. Jesus showed us that our lives are all about — or should be about — transformation.

The life of Jesus is a blueprint for all human life. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the significance of Jesus’ life and death.

For now, let’s focus on transformation, which I believe is the centerpiece of the hero’s journey. All good heroes in storytelling undergo a transformation that forever changes them morally, emotionally, mentally, physically, and/or spiritually. My friend and colleague Greg Smith and I talk about the significance of these types of transformations in our 2015 book, Reel Heroes & Villains.

There is no more dramatic transformation than campbell_herothe one undergone by Jesus of Nazareth. His life followed the classic pattern in hero storytelling. Denied proper shelter and born in a manger, Jesus overcame poverty to grow into the wisest spiritual leader of his time – a remarkable transformation. This transformative rise of the hero represents the first part of the heroic arc.

As with all heroes, his ascendancy had to come to an end. Jesus was arrested for threatening the established order, and he was tortured and brutally murdered. This tragic fall of the hero is part two of the classic heroic arc.

The third act in the heroic journey is the hero’s rising from the ashes of defeat. As Joseph Campbell wrote, “The crucifixion is not a calamity if it leads to new life.” The resurrection was a dramatic physical and spiritual transformation that not only represented the transcendence of Jesus – it transformed all of Western civilization for two millennia and beyond.

More from Campbell: “Through Christ’s crucifixion we were unshelled, which enabled us to Falling-Upwardbe born to resurrection. The imitation of Christ, then, is participating in the suffering and joys of the world, all the while seeing through them the radiance of the divine presence.”

And from Richard Rohr: “Jesus is actually naming and revealing what is happening everywhere and all the time in God. Jesus’ resurrection is a statement about how reality works: always moving toward resurrection.”

Resurrection, then, is transcendence. For Christians, it can also be likened to other phenomena of spiritual change, including conversion and salvation. Hindus call dramatic growth of this type enlightenment, and Buddhists call it bodhicitta. Twelve step programs call it an awakening. The Greeks called it metamorphosis. Psychologists like myself label it plain old development.

But development is clearly an understatement. Transformation is a complete change in form, not unlike a caterpillar transforming intometamorphosis a butterfly. The resurrection of Jesus is the most dramatic form of transformation possible, at personal level and at the level of an entire society or culture.

The pattern in Jesus’ life, and in our own lives, is clear. We move from order to disorder to reorder. And psychologists who study post-traumatic growth will tell you that the final reorder is a more beautiful place to be than the original order.

Transformation gives us hope that no matter how dire our circumstances, we can be redeemed. Hero stories move us all because they call us all. This Easter season, we can pay attention to the story of resurrection and thereby learn much about the hero’s journey that awaits each of us.

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Bibliography

Allison, Scott, and Goethals, George. (2017). The hero’s transformation.

Allison, Scott, and Smith, Greg. (2015). Reel Heroes & Villains.

Campbell, Joseph. (1995). Reflections on the Art of Living.

Rohr, Richard. (2011). Falling Upward.

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 book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

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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.

ReelHeroes.net — Our Analysis of Heroes in the Movies

By Scott T. Allison

My good friend Greg Smith and I have two things in common:  We love heroes and we love movies.  Greg is an expert in fictional writing and character development in storytelling.  I’ve been studying heroes for more than a decade and have published many books on the subject.  And so by establishing ReelHeroes.net back in 2013, Greg and I found a way to combine our interests and our expertise.

What is the mission of ReelHeroes.net?  Our goal is to critique the heroic characters in recent and classic movies.  Typically, movie reviewers focus on the quality of the movie.  We do that, too.  But we’ve found in our research that people need heroes.  Hero stories are psychologically important to us.  These tales educate, they inspire, and they entertain.  And the typical hero journey follows a classic pattern and a series of stages that are characteristic of all hero stories throughout the ages.

When movie-makers acknowledge these patterns, we usually get a satisfying movie-going experience. But when they ignore these ancient, time-honored paradigms, the story usually falls flat.  So at ReelHeroes.net, we’re not only be able to tell you if a movie was good or bad, but we can also pinpoint where the hero-storytelling was good or not so good.

We base much of our hero analysis on the work of Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist who detected the following pattern in all hero stories:

(1) The hero starts out in a safe, familiar world.

(2) The hero is summoned, either willingly or unwillingly, into a new, dangerous, unfamiliar world.

(3) The hero is charged with some goal or mission.

(4) The hero encounters other people who fill important social roles — mentors, lovers, villains, sidekicks, & father figures are common.

(5) The hero then overcomes some missing internal quality to attain the goal.

(6) The hero is transformed significantly and returns to the familiar world.

(7) The hero then delivers the meaning of the journey.

Greg has used this pattern extensively in Agile Writers to help his students compose effective and entertaining novels.  In the past few years, he’s helped people compose over a dozen first drafts and several self-published books.  They’ve all relied on these tried-and-true stages of the hero journey.  Two members of the Agile Workshop have been nominated for the coveted James River Writer Best Unpublished Novel Contest.

At ReelHeroes.net, we  sometimes refer to other models of heroism in our reviews.  Paul Moxnes has a model based on family structure, arguing that heroes emerge within a family hierarchy (e.g., Fathers, Mothers, Sons, Daughters, Servants, etc).  In our own research on heroes, we’ve found that heroes tend to possess The Great Eight characteristics.  Heroes are smart, strong, selfless, caring, resilient, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring.

It’s our goal to review mainstream movies that people who appreciate a hero analysis will want to see. We even occasionally review old classic movies with an especially strong hero story. We’ll avoid genres such as horror or slapstick comedy (although we confess to being avid Three Stooges fans). We love to review bad films as much as good films because it gives us a chance to see where the artist deviated from the acknowledged structures — and wonder how in the world did this film get made!

So join us as we explore the hero journey in action on the big screen.  We use the word “action” deliberately, as the work of any good hero involves acts of good deeds.  As Robert Downey, Jr., once observed, “Hero is not a noun, it’s a verb.”

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The Deal We Strike With Our Heroes

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The price of greatness is responsibility.” – Winston Churchill

A few weeks ago we posted a blog entry that posed the question of whether we expect too much from our heroes.  With so many heroes falling from grace in the past few years, we suggested the possibility that we hold them to too high a standard.  We also offered some reasons why we might expect more virtuous behavior from heroes than we do from the average non-hero.

Our good friend Greg Smith, who is the founder of Agile Writers, read our blog post and contributed a thoughtful comment that really got our attention.  Greg raised the possibility that we enter into an implicit exchange relationship with our heroes.  The exchange relationship carries with it an unspoken agreement that we make with heroes, and it goes something like this:  We agree to give heroes our adulation and support, but in return they must maintain an idealized image of human greatness.

Greg describes the bargain in the following way:  “You [the hero] reflect what we want to see in ourselves.  But if you reflect the reality of us as people and a society, then you’re just one of us after all.  And therefore, you’re no more special than we are and you have to come down from your pedestal and stand in the muck with the rest of us.”

If a hero misbehaves, we consider it a breech of contract and we withdraw our admiration and support.  We may also show considerable anger about the contract violation — witness the outrage directed toward Tiger Woods that still lingers to this day.  A broken agreement can turn a hero into a villain rather quickly and easily. Prominent examples, besides Tiger, include David Petraeus, LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, and Joe Paterno.

The idea that we enter into implicit agreements with the successful and powerful is not a new one.  In 2005, psychologist David Messick published an article in which he proposed that an implicit contract exists between leaders and followers.  The contract states that we’ll let leaders lead us if they provide us with a vision, a sense of pride in the group, and group security and protection.  In return, we’ll give leaders our loyalty, effort, and support.

We may have a similar implied agreement with celebrities and the rich.  The terms of the unspoken agreement may be that we’ll let famous celebrities have their fame and wealth, and we may even become their fans, but only as long as they earn their affluence honestly, pay a higher percentage of taxes, behave well, and don’t abuse their privileged status.

What’s most interesting about these implicit agreements is that highly successful people are either not aware of them, or they find it extremely difficult to honor them.  Those of us among the lowly masses seem to be much more sensitized to these informal contracts with heroes.  Maybe this is because we’d much rather be a hero than a hero would want to be us.  If we’re going to put them up on an enviable pedestal, the least they can do is follow basic rules of common decency.

Sometimes, after they’ve fallen, former heroes know they violated the contract.  Tiger Woods admitted as much.  “I knew my actions were wrong but I convinced myself that normal rules did not apply,” he said.  “I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by – I thought I could get away with everything I wanted to.  I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me.  I felt I was entitled.”

Tiger’s confession is consistent with the results of several psychological studies showing that the more power and success that people enjoy, the more they believe they don’t need to play by the same rules as the rest of us.  And yet it is when someone becomes a hero that we most expect them to play by those rules.  For this reason, maintaining one’s heroic status may be just as challenging as becoming a hero in the first place.  Ironically, one of the most common ways to become a villain is to become a hero first.

All because of the deal we strike with our heroes.

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