Archive for the 'Commentary and Analysis' Category

Page 2 of 3

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.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

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.

* * * * * * * *

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:

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.

- – - – - – -

10 Reasons Why We Need Heroes

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

People often ask us why we need heroes.  Although the phrase “why we need them” is in the subtitle of our first HEROES book, we’ve never really offered a succinct list of the many reasons why heroes are so important to us.  Here we aim to do just that, hoping you’ll forgive us for offering up yet another top-10 list.

Below we’ve assembled 10 major reasons why people need heroes.  This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive by any means.  But it’s a good start.  Here goes:

1.  We’re born to have heroes — More than a half-century ago, Carl Jung proposed the idea that all humans have collectively inherited unconscious images, ideas, or thoughts, which he called archetypes.  These archetypes reflect common experiences that all humans (and their ancestors) have shared over millions of years of evolution, and the main purpose of these archetypes is to prepare us for these common experiences.  Two such archetypes, according to Jung, are heroes and demons.  Current research appears to support Jung – scientists have found that newborn babies are equipped with a readiness for language, for numbers, and for their parents’ faces.  Humans appear to be innately prepared for certain people and tasks, and we believe this may include encounters with heroes.

2.  Heroes nurture us when we’re young — Our research has shown that when people are asked to name their own personal heroes, the first individuals who often come to mind are parents and caretakers.  All of us owe whatever success we’ve had in life to the people who were there for us when we were young, vulnerable, and developing.  When we recognize the great sacrifices that these nurturers and caretakers have made for us, we’re likely to call them our heroes.

3.  Heroes reveal our missing qualities — Heroes educate us about right and wrong.  Most fairytales and children’s stories serve this didactic purpose, showing kids the kinds of behaviors that are needed to succeed in life, to better society, and to overcome villainy.  It is during our youth that we most need good, healthy adult role models who demonstrate exemplary behavior.  But adults need heroic models as well.  Heroes reveal to us the kinds of qualities we need to be in communion with others.

4.  Heroes save us when we’re in trouble — This principle explains the powerful appeal of comic book superheroes.  People seemingly can’t get enough of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, and many others. We are moved by stories of magical beings with superhuman powers who can instantly remove danger and make everything right.  This principle also explains our extreme admiration for society’s true heroic protectors – law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, and military personnel.

5.  Heroes pick us up when we’re down — Life inevitably hands us personal setbacks and failings.  Failed relationships, failed businesses, and health problems are common life experiences for us.  Our research has shown that it is during these phases of great personal challenge in our lives that heroes are most likely inspire us to overcome whatever adversity we’re facing.  Heroes lift us up when we’re personally in danger of falling down emotionally, physically, or spiritually.

6.  Heroes give us hope — Independent of our own personal well-being, we cannot help but recognize that the world is generally a troubled place rife with warfare, poverty, famine, and unrest.  Heroes are beacons of light amidst this vast darkness.  Heroes prove to us that no matter how much suffering there is in the world, there are supremely good people around whom we can count on to do the right thing, even when most other people are not. Heroes bring light into a dark world.

7.  Heroes validate our preferred moral worldview — One fascinating theory in psychology is called terror management theory, which proposes that people’s fear of death strengthens their allegiance to cultural values. Just the simple act of reminding people of their mortality leads them to exaggerate whatever moral tendencies they already have.  For example, studies have shown that reminders of death lead people to reward do-gooders and punish bad-doers more than they normally would.  Just thinking about the fragility of life can lead us to need and to value heroes.

8.  Heroes provide dramatic, entertaining stories — Psychologists have long been aware of the power of a good, juicy narrative.  Stories of heroes and heroic myth have entertained humans since the dawn of recorded history.  Joseph Campbell documented recurring patterns in these hero stories in his seminal book, and virtually all hero stories feature these time-honored patterns.  Today’s media are all-too aware of our hunger for hero stories and take great delight in building celebrity heroes up and then tearing them down.  People have always been drawn to human drama and they always will be.

9.  Heroes solve problems — Our research has shown that people’s heroes are not just paragons of morality. They also show superb competencies directed toward the goal of solving society’s most vexing problems.  Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine.  George Washington Carver introduced crop rotation into agriculture. Stephanie Kwolek invented the material in bullet-proof vests that have saved the lives of countless law enforcement officers.  Heroes save lives with their brains, not just with their brawn.

10.  Heroes deliver justice — People from all cultures possess a strong desire for justice.  After members of the Boston police captured the Boston Marathon bomber, crowds of citizens lined the streets to applaud their heroes.  Research has shown that we need to believe that we live in a just world where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.  The preamble to the 1950s Superman television show spoke of superman’s never-ending quest for “truth, justice, and the American way”.  Heroes quench our thirst for fairness and lawfulness.

- – - – - -

So there you have them – 10 reasons why people need heroes.  These reasons tap into basic human needs for survival, nurturance, growth, education, safety, security, happiness, health, hope, and justice.  None of us can meet these important needs without significant help from others.  We certainly hope – and strongly suspect — that as long as humans have these needs, we’ll have extraordinary people whom we call heroes willing to step up to help us.

We’ll end this article with a question:  With so many people in the world, and in your neighborhood, unable to meet many of their essential needs, can you be someone’s hero today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

- – - – - – -

Explorations of Heroism: My Journey Toward Understanding the Genesis of Exemplary Behavior

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

This article will appear in In M. Guttman (Ed.), We Discover: Understanding the Origins of Creative Activity, to be published in 2014.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

By Scott T. Allison

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.”  This bit of wisdom most definitely characterizes my life as a college professor, especially the circuitous path that brought me to the study of heroism.

Studying heroes 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 a number of studies that examined the conditions under which people placed their group’s welfare ahead of their own individual welfare (e.g., Allison & Messick, 1985, 1990; Samuelson & Allison, 1994).  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 my research did focus on the factors that tend to make people behave badly – or well – in group settings.

Then in 1991, I found myself teaching a “great books” humanities course to first-year 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 from around the globe.  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 at different points of time in human history, and in different parts of the world, and yet 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 prophecy 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 perceive and 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 (Allison, Eylon, Beggan, & Bachelder, 2009).  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 (Eylon & Allison, 2005).

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 had collaborated in Santa Barbara back in the mid-1980s while I was a graduate student at the University of California.  At that time, Goethals was visiting Santa Barbara while on leave from Williams, and he, David Messick, and I embarked on a collaborative project that, on the surface, would seem to have no connection to heroism at all.  We set our sights on understanding self-serving biases in social judgments.

Yet somehow, there was indeed an indirect connection to heroism, although we weren’t consciously aware of it at the time.  Looking back at our 1980s collaborative work in Santa Barbara, I should have realized that some day Goethals and I would surely write about heroes.  The first paper we published together, along with David Messick, was inspired by one of our heroes, the boxer Muhammad Ali.  We were always fascinated by Ali’s influence and leadership outside the ring, particularly his role in making race relations change in the United States.  Ali was always his own man.  He insisted on being called Muhammad Ali rather than what he referred to as his slave name, Cassius Clay.  At first the media refused to go along.  But as we know from his long boxing career, Ali never quit.  Eventually sports writers and broadcasters recognized that he was right to insist that they call him what he wanted to be called.  He led the way for many, many more African Americans to use names that reflected their pride in their racial identity.  There was no doubt that he was the first, and that he led the way.

As George Goethals and I tried to identify the qualities that made Ali an effective leader to a largely hostile white establishment, we focused on his wit and his obvious linguistic intelligence.  We remembered that when Ali was once asked whether he had deliberately faked a low score on the US Army mental test, so that he could avoid the draft, he mischievously quipped, “I never said I was the smartest, just the greatest” (McNamara, 2009).  That self-characterization led us to research some of the limits on people’s self-serving biases.  The result was our Social Cognition paper,  “On being better but not smarter than other people: The Muhammad Ali effect” (Allison, Messick & Goethals, 1989).

At that point neither of us had turned to studying heroism or leadership or the connections between them.  But we were inching closer in that direction.  I joined the faculty at Richmond in 1987 and continued to conduct work focusing on pro-social behavior in groups, examining the conditions under which people place their group’s well-being ahead of their own individual interests.  Goethals, meanwhile, returned to Williams and was publishing some great work on group goals, social judgment processes, and eventually leadership.

When Goethals was coaxed to join the faculty at Richmond in 2004, he and I renewed our collaboration, this time focusing on the underdog effect – the tendency of people to root for disadvantaged entities in competition.  This research was borne out of our earlier interest in such diverse heroes such as Muhammad Ali, Sundiata, and Odysseus, all of whom somehow overcame the most terrible adversity to achieve greatness.  Goethals and I embarked on a research program exploring people’s love for underdogs (Kim et al., 2008), and this research evolved slowly into work examining triumphant underdogs who became exemplary leaders and heroes.  Our interest in underdogs, Goethals’ exceptional scholarship on U.S. Presidents, and my own research on people’s reverence for the dead (Allison et al., 2009), all eventually led to the books and articles on heroes that Goethals and I have written today (Allison & Goethals, 2008, 2011, 2013, in press; Goethals & Allison, 2012).

Our first book on heroes, Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them (Allison & Goethals, 2011) addressed the psychology of constructing heroes in our minds as well as the path that great heroes take when they perform their heroic work. Although scholarship on leadership, particularly Howard Gardner’s (1997) Leading Minds, was always important in the way we thought about heroes, our general exploration of the psychology of heroism diverted us from focusing on the connections between leadership and heroism.  Those connections were explored more fully in our review article in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Goethals & Allison, 2012), where Goethals and I proposed a conceptual framework for understanding heroism in terms of the influence that heroes exert.  Heroes, we argued, vary in their depth of influence, their breadth of influence, their duration of influence, and the timing of their influence.

But there was clearly much more to consider.  This became increasingly clear in 2010 when we started to blog about heroes.  Within four years we have written more than 150 hero analyses, attracting over a quarter of a million visitors to the blog.  One hundred of our hero profiles were included in our book on Heroic Leadership (Allison & Goethals, 2013).  Profiling so many great individuals made it increasingly clear that all of our heroes were also leaders.  They might not fit traditional leader schemas, or people’s implicit theories of leadership, but they were clearly leaders in the sense that Gardner defined it in 1997.  Either directly or indirectly, through face-to-face contact or through their accomplishments, products and performances, heroes influence and lead significant numbers of other people.

While I will leave it to others to assess the significance of my body of work on heroes, I do wish to share two observations about the history of my ongoing research on heroism.  These reflections speak more to the path I have taken in my work than they do to any destination I have reached.  My first observation is that I have benefited from researching the concept of heroism from multiple paradigmatic angles and methodological perspectives.  For over thirty years I’ve looked at selfless behavior using case studies, interviews, surveys, experimentation, dispositional analysis, and contextual approaches. Philosopher William James once wrote that science is best served when scientists not only remain open to fresh perspectives, but actively seek them out. James believed that a single perspective offers but a mere, limited slice of the world (James, 1909/1977).  Adopting multiple scientific perspectives expands what one can observe and thus can learn about a phenomenon (James, 1899/1983b).  I have found this idea to be certainly true in my study of heroism.

My second observation relates to the Joseph Campbell quote that began this essay.  We may think that we can plan how our careers will unfold, but in reality outside forces are always at work that have a far more powerful effect on our professional lives than anything we could ever imagine.  What exactly are these “outside forces”?  They are the influential people, resources, circumstances, luck, and zeitgeist which are forever lurking and shifting around us.  For me, these factors included David Messick’s willingness to serve as my advisor in graduate school, George Goethals’ decision to choose Santa Barbara as the location for his leave in 1985, my choice to work at a small liberal arts school like Richmond which offered that “great books” course, Richmond’s school of leadership offering a position to Goethals in 2004, and many, many more happy chance events.

The serendipitous events that shape our lives are inescapable.  During my career, I have been swept and swayed by these influences and have tried not to fight them but to embrace them.  These ever-present and ever-changing forces underscore the truism that nothing we can plan in life is ever as special as the unintended route we ultimately take.  Dan Gilbert, the eminent social psychologist at Harvard University, was once asked, “What’s the key to success?”  His immediate reply:  “Get lucky.  Accidentally find yourself at the right place at the right time.”  The idea here is that while we’d like to think we are the architects of our own destiny, we are more the product of forces beyond our control than we would like to think.   Gilbert later went on to explain this idea more fully in his best-selling book entitled, appropriately enough, Stumbling on Happiness (Gilbert, 2007).

“Serendipity,” wrote scientist Pek van Andel, “is the art of discovering an unsought finding.”  Many unsought events had to come together for George Goethals and me to embark on our exploration of heroes.  The beautiful orchestration of unpursued circumstances led to the books and articles on heroism that we published (Allison & Goethals, 2008, 2011, 2013, in press; Goethals & Allison, 2012; Goethals, Allison, Kramer, & Messick, in press).  The wondrous thing about serendipity is that it has our best interests in mind, as long as we trust it.  We need only remain open to receiving, and capitalizing on, the unexpected gifts and opportunities that sly happenstance throws our way.

References

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.

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

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013).  Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.  New York: Routledge.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (in press).  The heroic leadership dynamic: Constructing and executing the most exemplary form of leadership.  In Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., Kramer, R., & Messick, D. (Eds.), Core concepts in the psychology of leadership.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Allison, S. T., & Messick, D. M.  (1985).  Effects of experience on performance in a replenishable resource trap.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 943-948.

Allison, S. T., & Messick, D. M.  (1990).  Social decision heuristics and the use of shared resources.  Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 3, 195-204.

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.

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.

Eylon, D., & Allison, S. T. (2005).  The frozen in time effect in evaluations of the dead.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1708-1717.

Gardner, H. (1997). Leading minds — An anatomy of leadership.  Harper & Collins, London.

Gilbert, D. (2007). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Vintage.

Goethals, G. R. & Allison, S. T. (2012).  Making heroes:  The construction of courage, competence and virtue.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 183-235.

Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., Kramer, R., & Messick, D. (Eds.) (in press). Core concepts in the psychology of leadership.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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.

James, W. (1977). A pluralistic universe. In F. H. Burkahradt, F. Bowers, & I. K. Skrupskelis (Eds.), The works of William James. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1909)

James, W. (1983b). What makes a life significant? In F. H. Burkahradt, F. Bowers, & I. K. Skrupskelis (Eds.), The works of William James: Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life’s ideals (pp. 150–167). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1899)

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.

McNamara, M. (2009).  Muhammad Ali’s new fight: Literacy. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-18563_162-2207050.html on June 15, 2012.

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.

10 Ways You Can Become a Hero

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Sometimes we make the mistake of believing that the only heroes out there are the people we watch on television, read about in news reports, or see in the movies.  The truth is that each one of us has the ability to become a hero to someone.  Opportunities for heroism are everywhere!  We hesitate to bring you yet another top-ten list.  There are so many of these lists that someone last year compiled a top 10 list of top 10 lists.

But because people have frequently asked us what it takes to be a hero, we feel the time is ripe to offer some suggestions.  We don’t claim that these are the only things one can do to become a hero.  But they’re a good start.   Keep in mind that this list reflects our own personal view of heroism as exemplary actions directed toward improving the lives of others.  If your idea of a hero is someone who scores many touchdowns or who sings great songs, then this list is certainly not for you.

Here then is our list of 10 ways that you can become a hero.

1.  Study the Greats – Almost all of us have personal heroes and legends who have inspired us.  Read their biographies and strive to discern the qualities that made them great.  Look for common patterns.  The Nelson Mandelas, Mahatma Gandhis, and Martin Luther Kings of the world had a vision of a better world and were willing to make life-altering sacrifices to achieve that vision.  They were smart, strong, courageous, resilient, and selfless.  They didn’t let setbacks deter them and showed great leadership.  Cultivating these traits and life habits can send you on your own heroic journey.

2.  Be the Change You Want to See in the World – This line, a paraphrased version of a quote from Gandhi, is saturated with truth and wisdom.  People can easily spot a hypocrite – the person who cries for energy conservation but drives a Hummer; the person who tells us to give to the poor yet gives little himself; or the person who advocates world peace yet spouts hatred on Facebook or Twitter.  True heroes live the words they speak.

3.  Listen for the Call – The famed comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, noticed that all heroes in world literature are “called” on a heroic journey.  C. J. Hayden refers to a calling as a “strong intuition, sudden realization, divine transmission, or just a subtle wondering.”  Many heroes report having a calling to act on behalf of animal rights, to teach in Africa, to run for President, or to quit their high-paying jobs to serve others at low pay.   Your own calling may be less dramatic but no less important to those you help in life.

4.  Promote the Good rather than Oppose the Bad — The most successful, heroic people focus on the positive.  They know that negative energy, even when directed against dark forces in the world, is ineffective for promoting positive change.  Mother Teresa is famous for saying, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

5.  Look for Opportunities – Psychologist Phil Zimbardo believes that all of us are potential heroes waiting for the right moment to fulfill that potential.  Most heroes are everyday people, not the superheroes we see in movies.  Zimbardo has begun an ambitious Heroic Imagination Project dedicated to helping all of us become heroes. “By promoting the heroic imagination, especially in our kids through our educational system, we want kids to think, ‘I’m a hero in waiting, and I’m waiting for the right situation to come along when I can act heroically.’”

6.  Use the Power of Small Gestures – A good friend of ours, Paul, tells us that he once hugged a male friend in a grocery store simply because the man looked a bit worn and unhappy.  Later, that man thanked Paul profusely for that hug.  “He said it completely changed his outlook, and maybe even his life,” said Paul.  “He said I was his hero.  It was such a little thing I almost didn’t do it.  I’m so glad I did.”  Simple gestures of kindness can mean the world to someone who is fighting a tough personal battle.

7.  Perform Random Acts of Kindness – In 2000 the movie Pay it Forward resurrected an idea first proposed by the ancient Greek playwright Menander:  If someone has done you a good deed, you can repay the act by performing good deeds to others rather than to the original benefactor.  Others call it anonymous giving.  You can start a wave of human kindness by helping a student with tuition, raking someone’s leaves, buying someone groceries, paying the highway toll for someone behind you, cooking a meal for a neighbor, etc.

8.  Volunteer Your Time – These last three suggestions focus on serving others.  Your service can take the form of your time.  Spending some loving, caring time with others can be far more meaningful than spending money on them.  Visit a nursing home.  Volunteer to help adults learn how to read.  Spend time with children.  Make someone feel loved today, especially those who are on the fringes of society.

9.  Volunteer Your Talent – Everyone has a talent they can share to enrich the lives of others.  We have a friend who volunteers to play the piano at a retirement home.  Another friend with great empathy and listening skills volunteers to help teenagers who are growing up in troubled homes.  Another friend with good business instincts holds fundraisers and bake-sales for charities.  Make an inventory of your talents and use them to improve the lives of others.

10.  Volunteer Your Treasure – Many of us engage in some form of tithing – the practice of donating a portion of one’s income to help others in need.  Don’t feel like you need to contribute vast amounts to make a difference.  The aggregation of small amounts from many people can add up and make a significant impact.  Make sure the charities you donate to are worthwhile and well-run.  Charity Navigator can help you make an informed choice.

—-

You don’t need to wear a cape or possess a superpower to make the world a better place.  To perform heroic acts, all you need is the willingness to make some major sacrifice, or even many small ones that add up over time.  Serving others builds relationships, spreads love, and creates a ripple effect.  The remarkable truth about helping others is that it invariably helps us as much, or more, than the people we are helping.  It builds our self-esteem.  That should not be the primary reason for wanting to improve other people’s lives.  But it’s a wonderful side-effect.

Does the Villain’s Journey Mirror the Hero’s Journey?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In an earlier blog post, we outlined the various stages of the hero’s journey in mythology and literature as described in 1949 by Joseph Campbell.  In the prototypical hero story, he or she is called to an adventure, sometimes reluctantly, and is swept into another world fraught with danger.  In this strange world the hero undergoes many tests and trials, gets help from unlikely sources, and is often distracted by a romantic interest.  In the end, the hero overcomes great obstacles, returns home as a person transformed, and is the master of both worlds.  It is a timeless story structure that has assumed countless forms in hero tales across the globe.

But what of the villain?  Nearly every hero story has one, yet far less attention has been devoted to understanding the life story of the prototypical villain in myth and legend.  Do heroes and villains travel along a similar life path?  Or do villains experience a journey that is the inverse of that of the hero?

The answer to the first question appears to be, yes, there are parallels between the lives of heroes and villains.  Christopher Vogler, a noted Hollywood development expert and screenwriter, once wrote that villains are the heroes of their own journeys. Vogler believed that whether a character is working toward achieving great good or great evil, the general pathway is similar.  Both heroes and villains experience a significant trigger event that propels them on their journeys.  Heroes and villains encounter obstacles, receive help from sidekicks, and experience successes and setbacks during their quests.

While we do not disagree with this general parallel structure, we’ve observed that many stories portray villains as following the hero’s life stages in reverse.  We first came across this idea from writing expert Greg Smith, who found an interesting writer’s web discussion board post by an individual going by the username of RemusShepherd.  The idea is compelling:  Whereas heroes complete their journey having attained mastery of their worlds, the story often begins with villains possessing the mastery.  That is, hero stories often start with the villains firmly in power, or at least believing themselves to be superior to others and ready to direct their dark powers toward harming others.

Examples abound.  Consider the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, the shark in Jaws, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, and Annie Wilkes in Misery.  In these examples, the story begins with the villain securely in power, the master of his or her world.  The heroes of these stories, in contrast, are weak and naive at the outset.  Only after being thrust into the villains’ worlds do these heroes gather the assistance, resources, and wisdom necessary to defeat the villains.

The villain’s story is thus one of declining power while the hero’s story is one of rising power.  But before this pattern is made clear, there must be one or more epic clashes between the hero and villain, with the hero embodying society’s greatest virtues and the villain embodying selfishness and evil.  In defeat, the villain’s mastery is handed over to the hero.  The villain’s deficiencies of character have been exposed; the hero’s deficiencies have been corrected.  The two journeys, one the inverse of the other, are completed.

And so here we see that Vogler and RemusShepherd may both be correct – heroes and villains may follow similar life journeys but these journeys are often staggered in time within the same story structure.  This temporal staggering may create the illusion that heroes and villains follow inverse paths.  Consider the opening act of a typical hero story; the naïve and deficient hero is just beginning his journey while the villain is at the height of his powers.  Movie franchises may later release prequels that reveal how the villain acquired such power in the first place.  In these prequels we witness a villain backstory that parallels the first movie’s portrayal of the hero’s journey.

A fine line often separates heroes from villains, a line that is clearly delineated in their opposing moral ambitions.  But the line can also be blurred when we recognize that all transforming journeys — whether for good or for evil — must share many common storytelling elements.

References

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., & Hensel, A. (2012).  Sensitivity to the changing fortunes of others.  Personality and Social Psychology Connections.

Goethals, G. R. & Allison, S. T. (2012).  Making heroes:  The construction of courage, competence and virtue.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 183-235.

 

- – - – - – - – - – - -

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 two books on the subject.  And so by establishing ReelHeroes.net, Greg and I couldn’t think of a better 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’ll 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) And then the hero 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 will sometimes refer to other hero models 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 may 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.”

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

The Everyman Superhero in Three Recent Films

By Greg Smith

At Agile Writers we are guided by the principles of storytelling that were exposed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces.   In it, a hero (the central character) has a missing inner quality and must go on a journey to discover that quality and satisfy it.  The hero starts out in his ordinary world where “something happens” that pushes him into some other “special world” where he meets friends and enemies.  He accomplishes some goal and in so doing he fulfills his missing inner quality.

The classic super hero story is often just such a journey.  The hero has some character flaw that is exposed early in the story.  The hero attains a power that throws him into a special world of being “super.”  He spends the next part of the story learning how to master the power.  By the end of the first 30 minutes of the film, our hero has mastered his powers and he has an enemy to overcome.  Meanwhile, we’ve also learned that the hero has a severe inner pain that must be salved.  And we’re off.

Today I’d like to look at three very similar films.  These films depict ordinary people who take up the cause of the super hero and attempt to right the wrongs of society from behind the mask.

In Kick-Ass (2010) we meet young Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) who has all the problems of the typical teenager.  He wants to meet girls, he gets his lunch money stolen by older boys, and he feels powerless in a world of adults.  Dave becomes so tired of being a victim and of watching others play the victim that he dons a green scuba outfit and becomes Kick-Ass the crime fighter.  He confronts the local hoodlums who quickly stab him and throw him under a bus.  Dave undergoes multiple surgeries to reinforce his bones with steel and as a result of his accident he has a reduced sensation to pain.  He befriends other local self-made heroes and takes on the crime syndicate.

In Super  (2010) we’re introduced to Frank Darbo (Rain Wilson) who is a thirty-something short order cook.  He’s done little with his life – so little in fact that the two main events of his life are getting married to his lovely wife (Liv Tyler) and pointing out a thief at a fruit stand.  His recovering addict wife of seven years leaves him for Jacques (Kevin Bacon) who supplies her with drugs.  Frank becomes inspired by watching late night Christian broadcasts depicting a super hero who leads children away from the devil and into a life of righteous living.  Frank decides that he is going to recover his wife by becoming the Crimson Bolt.  He befriends a young girl who clerks at the local comic-book store and together they take on the local drug syndicate.

From Australia comes Griff the Invisible (2010), the story of an ordinary office worker who believes that he has harnessed the power of invisibility.  Griff (Ryan Kwanten) dons a black scuba suit and lurks around at night looking for evil-doers. Along the way he meets a pretty girl who recognizes Griff for his ability to maintain a child-like innocence and sense of wonder.
What these characters have in common is a sense of powerlessness.  They feel so powerless, in fact, that the only way they can overcome it is if they cocoon themselves in garb and mask and change their identities.

Unlike the super heroes of comics and film, they aren’t hiding their identities to protect those they love, but to protect themselves from detection.  Once hidden, they are able to distance themselves from the limitations they feel when they are their ordinary selves.

And that is the message of these films. We each have the capacity to go beyond who and what we are right now.  The things that often hold us down are the preconceptions that we have about ourselves, and the prejudging that others impose upon us.  When these heroes don the mask and cape, they isolate and separate themselves from these limitations.  They are telling us that when we ignore the ties that society uses to bind us, and we unleash ourselves from our self-imposed limitations, we each become super.

Kick-Ass, Super, and Griff all follow super hero patterns that you’ll recognize.  There is an origin story, the definition of the villain, a pretty girl to acquire, a deep disappointment followed by a gathering storm and finally a climactic battle to set things right.  What is different about these films from other super hero films is that in the end, each hero returns to his origin:  ordinary, healed, and newly super.
- – - – - – - – -
This essay is reprinted from Matthew Killorin’s excellent Capes on Film blog.  Greg Smith founded Agile Writers in 2011 with the mission to discover a method for helping beginning writers complete a first-draft novel in 6 months.  The Agile Writer Method is based upon the writings of experts in mythology, screenwriting, and psychology. His seminars on the Agile Writer Method have delighted hundreds of writers, scholars, and university students.  In 2012 Agile Writers completed 12 first draft novels, 5 published novels, and two members of the Workshop have been nominated for the coveted James River Writer Best Unpublished Novel Contest.