The Monomyth of the Madman

By Scott T. Allison

Shortly after Vladimir Putin’s Russian army invaded the Ukraine, a noted journalist and historian, Kristina Sviderskytė, wrote this provocative line:

“The dreams of madmen are the nightmares of ordinary people.”

Human history has been defiled by the recurring tragic pattern of madmen rising to power and doing their murderous work. Besides Putin, there has been Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Jozef Stalin, and Leopold II of Belgium, among many others. Their fictional counterparts are Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, The Joker, and more.

None of these villains starts out “bad”. They are ordinary people at first and evolve into their villainous identity. Their development follows a common pattern, a common set of stages that transform them from an ordinary person into villain.

Borrowing from Sviderskytė’s quote, and from Joseph Campbell’s iconic hero monomyth, I call this pattern the monomyth of the madman. 

This monomyth of the madman describes the common blueprint of development that is characteristic of villains in real life and in storytelling. I use the term madman because psychologists have associated villainy with the dark triad of mental illness – narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

It’s important to emphasize that the vast majority of mental illnesses are not associated with violence at all. But research shows that people with dark triad traits – narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism – can have more aggressive impulses. Research also shows that people with serious illnesses such as major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder are also somewhat more prone to violence. Left untreated, these illnesses, when they affect world leaders, can have deadly consequences for millions of innocents.

The Fine Line Between Heroism and Villainy

We tend to believe, and want to believe, that a huge chasm exists between heroes who represent the best of human nature and villains who represent the worst. But studies show that heroes and villains share many traits in common. They can both be intelligent, strong, brave, resilient, inspiring, and charismatic. As such, it can be difficult for the average person to distinguish a heroic leader from a villainous leader.

The blurry line between heroism and villainy is demonstrated in the phrase, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Plenty of good Russian people currently support Vladimir Putin in the same way that plenty of decent Germans supported Hitler in the 1930s and 40s.

Why? Because villains share some of the same traits as heroes, and because villains can be effective in persuading followers that they are heroes.

“Every villain is a hero of his or her own story”, wrote famed Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler. Self-confident and charismatic villains attract followers by appealing to people’s desires to protect or promote a collective identity, often a national or religious identity. Scapegoating one or more groups is the villain’s favorite tactic to entice followers who seek esteem, validation, and economic or political gain. Villainy can easily sound heroic to people who confuse charisma for heroism, and who lack awareness of true heroism, which is never divisive and always inclusive.

Another reason I use the term “madman” is because these villains are almost always men, not women. And these men are mad — that is, they have a deep anger, often stemming from a deep wound and a profound sadness that has no apparent solution.

Similarity Between the Hero Monomyth and the Villain Monomyth

Campbell’s “monomyth of the hero” refers to the observation that all hero stories can be distilled into one single hero story. All great heroes, in real life and in fiction, pass through a series of stages:

  • The hero lives in an “ordinary world” that is safe and familiar.
  • Something happens that hurls the hero into the “special world” that is dangerous and unfamiliar.
  • In this new second world, the hero takes on a mission or a quest of some sort – to survive, to acquire something, to achieve a goal, or simply to get back home.
  • The hero is always missing an important inner quality that thwarts their growth needed to accomplish their goal.
  • The hero’s missing quality can be humility, confidence, courage, empathy, resilience, resourcefulness, or some fundamental truth about themselves or the world.
  • The hero encounters villains, obstacles, and setbacks.
  • The hero undergoes terrible suffering.
  • The hero receives help and guidance from wise allies and mentors.
  • During a crucial moment, the hero is tested to their limits, discovers the quality they are missing, and uses it to accomplish their mission.
  • The hero is now “the master of both worlds” – the original familiar world and the new world.
  • Transformed into their best self, the hero returns home and shares what they have learned with others.

Villains, it turns out, undergo several of these same stages. They, too, must leave the comforts of home to venture out into dangerous worlds, often testing them and helping them build confidence and courage. Here are some basic commonalities:

  • Both heroes and villains believe they are on a mission to accomplish something of vital importance for themselves and for their larger communities.
  • Both heroes and villains encounter adversity in life and experience great suffering.
  • Both heroes and villains are missing an important inner quality that prevents them from accomplishing their goals.
  • Both heroes and villains receive help from allies and mentors
  • Both heroes and villains attract followers using their charisma and “motional” intelligence – the ability to use their body and voice to move people.
  • Both heroes and villains, at the end of their journey, leave a lasting imprint on society.

Thus the monomyth of the hero – and of the villain – share a number of characteristics. But there are very important differences in the two monomyths, which we turn to next.

Differences Between the Hero Monomyth and the Villain Monomyth

Here are some of the striking differences between the hero and villain monomyths:

  • Whereas heroes become aware that they are missing an important inner quality — humility, confidence, courage, empathy, resilience, resourcefulness, or an important truth — villains seem unable or unwilling to recognize that they have any major personal deficiency.
  • Whereas heroes are influenced by good, wise mentors, villains are swayed by dark, immoral mentors.
  • Whereas heroes resist the hero label and are humbled by their journey, villains lack humility and view themselves as heroes on a noble mission.
  • Whereas heroes discover their missing inner quality and undergo personal transformation, villains resist change and remain “stuck” at a low, immature stage of development.
  • Whereas the hero’s deficiencies are corrected by humbling experiences, the villain’s mental and emotional deficiencies remain entrenched and actually become magnified over time.
  • Whereas the goals of heroic leaders involve unifying and uniting people, the goals of villainous leaders involve scapegoating and dividing people.
  • Whereas heroes emerge victorious and enjoy long-term success with their goals, villains at best only achieve short-term success and are ultimately defeated.
  • Whereas heroes become “the master of both worlds”, villains never master the second world. In fact, they probably never mastered the first world, either.
  • Whereas heroes leave a large, enduring, and positive imprint on society, villains leave a small, dark, residual mark on the world.

Stages of the Villain Monomyth

Given the above observations, the stages of the villain monomyth look something like this:

  • The pre-villain is an ordinary person living in an ordinary world that is safe and familiar.
  • Something happens that hurls this ordinary person into the “special world” that is dangerous and unfamiliar.
  • Often this new dangerous world is the world of abuse, with the ordinary person at the receiving end of emotional or physical abuse.
  • Typically, the abuser is a parent, but sometimes another authority figure, peers, or harsh social conditions damage this ordinary person.
  • The ordinary person suffers psychological harm that can assume the form of narcissism, psychopathy, depression, or schizoaffective disorders.
  • This mental illness distorts the ordinary person’s views of themselves and the world, often producing an extreme self-narcissism and/or collective narcissism of their community or nation.
  • The ordinary person remains unaware of their skewed perception of reality and is never able to acknowledge their damaged state nor their need for psychological and/or spiritual help.
  • As a result of their untreated trauma, the villain undergoes terrible suffering, often in private, but is unable to learn or grow from it. Their deep fears and sadness transforms into anger.
  • The ordinary person receives help and guidance from troubled or sycophantic allies and dark mentors.
  • The ordinary person takes on missions or quests to survive, to acquire power, and to elevate the power and status of their community or nation at the expense of other groups of people.
  • The ordinary person attracts followers who share similar deficits and tribal goals of elevating the greatness of their community or nation.
  • The ordinary person views themselves as a hero on a heroic mission. Their imaginary villains must be vanquished.
  • In the service of their mission, the ordinary person performs one or more acts of violence that are irredeemable and that propel the person to the status of villain.
  • The villain uses violence to accomplish many of their personal and social goals, reinforcing their confidence and belief in the virtuousness of their mission.
  • Over time, the villain’s use of scapegoating tactics increases and their violence escalates.
  • The villain encounters heroic individuals and groups who attempt to thwart the villain’s aims, and the villain declares these heroes to be villains.
  • In the end the villain is defeated, but their evil deeds leave residual scars for society to cope with for many generations.

Just as it is true that not all heroes pass through all stages of the hero monomyth, it is also true that not all villains pass through every stage of this villain monomyth. Still, three common threads apply to almost all villains, from school shooters to genocidal leaders:

  1. They are damaged people unable to grow or learn from their pain, and they project this pain onto others. As hurt people, they hurt people.
  2. They have a severe narcissism that prevents them from seeing themselves and their behavior with any moral objectivity or clarity.
  3. They are entrenched at a low level of maturity and development, unable to grow and evolve into healthy adults.

While villains should be held responsible and accountable for their actions, it is clear that their lifelong pain and inability to overcome their damaged psyches are the driving mechanisms for their violent actions. They are victims themselves, driven to create more victims. As a society it is incumbent on us to end childhood abuse and school bullying –- the seeds of villainy. We must identify damaged people and find ways to treat them as early as possible, before they damage others.

Take a look at Vladimir Putin’s background. And that of Hitler, Stalin, and many school shooters. They are tragic exemplars of the monomyth of the madman.

I am not the first to outline the stages of the villain’s journey. Others have also done so, with less of a psychological emphasis than I present here. No doubt I have oversimplified the process by which ordinary people transform into villains. The most important final cautionary thought I can leave you with is this:

We must avoid installing individuals with the background potential for villainy and violence into positions of power and leadership.

References

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., Marrinan, A. R., Parker, O. M., Spyrou, S. P., Stein, M. (2019). The metamorphosis of the hero: Principles, processes, and purpose. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 606

Allison, S. T. & Smith, G. (2015). Reel heroes and villains. Richmond: Agile Writer Press.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New York: New World Library.

Murphy, B. A., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Watts, A. L. (2017). Psychopathy and heroism: Unresolved questions and future directions. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership (pp. 525–546). New York: Routledge.

Worthington, E. L, & Allison, S. T. (2018). Heroic humility: What the science of humility can say to people raised on self-focus. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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The Problem of Heroism

By Olivia Efthimiou

When we think about heroism we tend to immediately think about the fanfare – noble knights raising their swords in the fight for freedom and justice, defeating evil sorcerers, Batman and Superman, courageous defenders fighting crime and saving the day, individuals performing extraordinary acts.

What’s so wrong about that? Nothing – and everything. Much attention is now being paid to the heights humans can achieve and the best of human nature. This is indeed a welcome and much-needed change, and heroism is in many ways leading the fold in this new wave of thinking.

I have to make clear from the outset that I am a staunch supporter and believer of the value of heroism for humanity – it is my conviction, in fact, that heroism is the evolutionary and genetic basis of all life on this planet, and the universe itself. I have no doubt that one day (and long after I am gone in all likelihood) scientists will discover this heroic basis of life.

But this does not mean that I do not recognise the challenges that come with it. This may be an unusual and bold statement but – I believe that approaching the study of heroism with what German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno called “negative dialectics”, or beginning to understand the costs of the pursuit of a heroic life, and indeed the costs of not taking up this pursuit, is the only true pathway to realise the spread of heroism widely. It is in our darkest times that we truly need heroism – and it is in those times that its reality seems most impossible.

The Heroism Problem

So what is the ‘problem’ with heroism? It is most commonly a romanticised or idealised notion. The hero is overwhelmingly seen as a symbol of triumph, overcoming the odds against him or her for some victorious end result. They defeat evil and order is restored in the world. A ‘superhero’ quality.

But reality is not as clear-cut. The burden and scars the hero can be left with as a result of what they have learnt and the trials they have undergone may leave them dispirited, calling for even greater amounts of courage to deal with the outcome of the journey. At other times there is no clear triumph as the journey might mean having to live with pain, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, injuries or brain damage.

In the case of self-sacrifice and altruism, yes, a noble act was done, but to the cost of the life of the heroic individual, and perhaps for those left behind. Will the fact that a mother or a father gave up their life for a ‘greater good’ make it any easier on a child that is left parentless, while the surviving partner struggles to fend for their family?

Psychologists Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo (2006, p. 31) speak of the “subtleties” of heroism that have been lost. The common conception of heroism, which is more of an exaggerated, overemphasised ideal, is juxtaposed against ‘ordinary’ reality. An ordinary wo/man who as a result of a single noble act or acts of bravery (usually in sequence) rises to the status of hero or superhuman, sealed into this realm therein.

But if we speak of the “banality of heroism” as Franco and Zimbardo (2006) do, and if as I propose heroism is innate and in-built into human and non-human organisms as an evolutionary imperative, both realities are in fact merged. They are not separate but live in tandem with each other everyday, constantly ‘speaking’ to each other.

Every organism’s life is arguably a composition/equation of intermittent acts of heroism to varying degrees, most often seamlessly blurring into reality, even though it might be the case that some (overwhelmingly the minority) become defined by what is culturally perceived as a great act of heroism. This is particularly applicable to the case of the anti-hero in popular texts, i.e. somebody deemed unlikely to be noble or brave, or perceived as ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’, redeemed by a single noble act (perhaps of self-sacrifice at the end of their life).

Again, this produces a ‘black and white’ view of reality, not accounting for its complexity. As Franco and Zimbardo (2006) suggest we are all, under the right conditions, capable of both evil (as demonstrated in the Stanford Prison experiment) and heroism. It is most accurate to describe the life of a human as a combination of both, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Daily acts of reaching outside our comfort zone can be regarded as heroic – we are creatures of habit and comfort. But we are also curious creatures, with an innate thirst for imagining the impossible. An act of doing something that feels uncomfortable, however small, taps into this inborn adventurous spirit, bringing us closer to our innate heroic nature. It is these small subtleties that are indeed becoming lost in all the celebratory fanfare of ‘superheroes’ and celebrity culture.

Heroism in the Ordinary

True heroism is likely to be a quiet, subtle thing, like a whisper in the dark that you can barely sense. But it is there. So let us begin to celebrate the small, the subtle, the unseen. For it is there that our true treasure lies. Like the Holy Grail or cup of Christ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – it is not an obvious flamboyant choice, it is old and worn, and you would just as easily pass it by. But it is real.

And then there is the assumption of this model that once hero status is achieved, that defines one as a ‘moral’ ‘noble’ character for the rest of their lifespan – that the journey is somehow a self-complete and enclosed process. This renders a hero frozen in time, a narrow account of their larger life story leading to the idealisation of the individual and their ascent to god-like status, as per the definition of ‘hero’ – is this realistic? If the lifespan of an organism is a series of hero journeys comprised of sequences of suffering, whether complete or incomplete, hero status is not a fixed state but rather fluid and indeed retractable – there is a fine line between courage and frailty.

This view of the banality of both unheroic and heroic acts in everyday life makes for a much more complex view of the role of heroism, always part of a dynamic complex interrelationship between a variety of determinants, making the opportunities for both evolution and regression endless. A significant point to make is that regression, contrary to traditional thought, is in fact conducive to and a determinant of evolution, if we take varying degrees of suffering as indispensable to heroism, and heroism as instrumental to evolution.

Introducing the concept of banality by no means denigrates the centrality of heroism in day to day life. If anything it escalates it, paving the way for a system where everyone is a hero. We need to go way deeper in an analysis of heroism – and we will be forever limited in such an attempt if we are to not look outside of the assumed boundaries of its concept, which has been limited to the humanities for far too long.

Acknowledging the value of heroism means acknowledging the value of journey and story, both our own and of others. We must begin to respect story as science, as episteme (from its Ancient Greek derivation), or as deep knowing – and knowledge as a journey itself – and dispel one-dimensional views of individuals, groups and the cosmos, recognising them for the rich tapestries that they are.

I believe that this type of science can provide answers to the enduring presence of heroism, which is arguably one of the few constants of not only the history of humans but the universe itself. I believe we will also constantly fail to fully comprehend heroism’s functions if we continue to look at it as a ‘higher’ ‘superior’ state of humanity (and indeed by not looking outside humanity), but rather as something innate and firmly embedded within life and physiology itself.

I believe that rather than thinking of heroism as something ‘out there’, a magical quality associated with a ‘mythical’ past that left us, it has always been there. We just need to open our eyes to it in new ways. In describing this work as merely an initial attempt, Franco and Zimbardo (2006, p. 33) themselves emphasise that “at best, it allows us to propose a few speculations that warrant further investigation [emphasis added]”.

Conclusion

Behind every crisis, there is a hero. Behind every life that shatters, there is the opportunity to put it back together. Behind every problem, lies its solution. The ‘problem’ of heroism, is not a problem per se. Nor is the heroic state untenable. It is a gift bestowed to all of us, which, if left unrealised, becomes a curse and the root of our Pandora’s box. Sometimes the cost is simply too high – so why be heroic? Because as the fictional character of Peter Parker says in the end of Spider-Man 3, “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle we have raging inside us, we always have a choice.

My friend Harry taught me that. He chose to be the best of himself. It’s the choices that make us who we are, and we could always choose to do what’s right.” And most of the time it is not about good or bad choices, but choices that were simply not good enough. Those are the ones that make the most impact in a world where heroism is banal.

A fellow heroism science researcher mentioned to me recently that we might need a new word in place of ‘hero’ given its problematic nature. Maybe we do – and that would be an easier path to take, that would appease those who still smirk at what they see as the unrealistic thought of creating everyday heroes.

It is the very ‘problem’ of heroism that makes it all the more worthwhile – it is the road less travelled, and that is always a noble effort. Maybe what we need is to follow the hard path of changing those opinions and pre-conceptions of the term ‘hero’. Radically altering those simplistic immediate associations and thought patterns into something deeply complex, innate and intimately interwoven with our bodies, hearts and minds is the hard road ahead.

But it will be worth it – more so than we can appreciate with our limited minds. Perhaps the real question is not whether there is validity in a new path and approach to the age-old question of heroism, but rather: how far does the rabbit hole go?

References

Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics (Vol. 1). A&C Black.

Franco, Z. E., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2006). The banality of heroism. Greater Good, 3(2), 30-35.

Ernest Becker’s Approach to Why Heroism Exists

By Scott T. Allison

People often ask me why we have heroes. In an earlier essay, I describe the 12 functions of heroism – that’s one way to answer the question.

Another way is to go deeper. In psychology, to go deeper often means to get at issues that we may not be consciously aware of. Of all the scholars who have ever investigated heroism, the person with the deepest understanding of the causes of heroism was a cultural anthropologist named Ernest Becker.

Becker took a psychoanalytic approach toward understanding heroism, meaning that he focused on unconscious fears and wishes that drive our behavior. His 1973 award-winning book, The Denial of Death, is pure genius in describing the unconscious human need for heroism.

The “Ache of Cosmic Specialness”

Becker’s analysis begins with the observation that children’s narcissism can take the form of conventional self-esteem, but more often than not it morphs into a powerful drive to achieve “cosmic significance”. He defined cosmic significance as “the desire to stand out, to be the one in creation” (p. 3).

Becker also calls this need “man’s tragic destiny”, and we’ll get to the tragic part of it in a moment. This central calling for greatness refers to each person’s transcendent need to “desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else” (p. 4).

And here we get to my favorite phrase that Becker uses. We may spend our lives looking for a better job, a better car, and a better roof over our heads, but “underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness” (p. 4, italics added). People literally “ache” to become something big and meaningful. They ache for heroism, in other words.

Becker believed that we look to accomplish heroic tasks because we are all too aware of the shortness of life and our inevitable death. According to Becker, “the hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count” (p. 5).

Self-Delusions of Heroism

Becker argued that most of this heroic drive is buried in our unconscious, as it would be an “ache” or “a devastating release of truth” to be made aware of how much our mundane lives fall short of achieving cosmic specialness. In other words, it’s pretty painful for most of us to admit that we’ll never become famous or achieve the heroic status of a Gandhi or a Malala or a Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our societies – not to mention the laws of mathematics — are simply not designed to allow average people to become well above average. Thus, this unfulfilled “universal urge to heroism”, deeply imbedded in all of us, contributes to our anxiety and malaise. Joseph Campbell (1991) labeled the 20th century as The Age of Anxiety, referring to the negative emotional consequences of our inability to know how to live a heroic life.

Becker noted that a few select individuals are capable of achieving something that will live on after they die. The heroism of many superstar individuals, plastered daily over social media, cultivates a misleading sense that long-lasting heroism is attainable to us all. Most of us, however, cannot achieve a heroic level of accomplishment and fame. Our best efforts are destined for failure. Becker argued that we share the same chance of success in crafting a heroically memorable life as do insects and lower animals.

Because our efforts to become heroic are likely to fail, we concoct a mental illusion that what we do has some vast significance. Striving after an illusion puts us in an existential dilemma. What is the best illusion under which to live? The illusion must give us dignity and hope. Historically, religion has fulfilled this function, endowing humans with eternal meaning and a sense of cosmic purpose. But as Becker and others have pointed out, in modern times religious dogma has become increasingly more difficult for the majority of us to accept.

Becker makes the compelling case that as we grow older, we realize that the most we can do to obtain the feeling of significance is to become part of “a cog in a heroic machine” (p. 12). We can serve our country, volunteer at our church, or advance the political party of our choice. We can become part of some worthy mass movement, become activists, or support a social cause of the utmost importance.

In short, people in search of heroism are driven to attach themselves to something big, something they deem to be of supreme importance. We ride the coattails of a cause bigger than ourselves and, most importantly, we desperately want the cause to be successful and to outlive us. To further satisfy our call to heroism, we can mentally exaggerate the size of the small part we play in this larger heroic machine. In this way we delude ourselves into believing that we are participating in life meaningfully, even heroically.

Charismatic Leadership as the Ticket to Heroism — or Villainy

Thus Becker believed that for most people, the path of personal heroism was doomed to failure because “no person is strong enough to support the meaning of his life unaided by something outside him” (1969, p. 43, italics added). That outside force is often a conspicuous and charismatic leader promising to lead followers on a great cause.

Charismatic heroic leaders provide a mechanism for average people to become part of something beyond them that is big, packed with significance, and destined to outlive them. Unable to achieve personal heroism on their own, most people are vulnerable to what we might call the perfect storm of susceptibility to influence from powerful leaders. Feeling utterly unheroic on their own, the average person will soak up a charismatic leader’s message of collective heroism like a dry sponge. The more self-confident the leader in promising an association with a great heroic cause, the faster and higher people will jump at the chance to join this large social bandwagon that appears earmarked for greatness.

Few of us, according to Becker, are consciously aware that we have this “ache of cosmic specialness” and that our lives are driven by this “universal call to heroism”. But it’s good to know so that we aren’t easily duped by charismatic leaders promising us either greatness or a return to greatness. The wrong leaders can use our drive for heroism to achieve their villainous aims.

References

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press

Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Anchor Books.

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The Hero Fixes a Toilet

By Scott T. Allison

Our toilet started running water intermittently between flushes, so I took the initiative to fix it. How hard could it be, I thought. That was my first mistake — I have a long, checkered history of trying to fix toilets. But denial and selective memory are powerful defense mechanisms, and money is money. If I just try harder, I should be able to conquer the toilet.

It didn’t happen.

My second mistake was setting out to the Big-Box hardware store to get a new flapper. Who needs customer assistance, I reasoned. Hubris is a terrible thing.

At Big-Box, I matched up the old one with the new one, brought the new one home, installed it, and discovered that it wasn’t quite the right size.

Like any good hero, I decided I needed help. This time I’d go to the smaller local hardware store where I’d get assistance from the friendly clerk.

Sure enough, at the small store an eager employee, a man in his late 60s, helped me pick out a different flapper. Even at this small store, there were over a dozen options – red flappers, black flappers, white flappers. Some plastic, some rubber, all of them enticing, all of them full of potential. The world of toilet flappers opened up to me in ways I never imagined.

I went home, installed the recommended flapper, and discovered that it too wasn’t quite the right size. Damn.

Like any good hero, I decided I needed more help. This time I recruited my wife to assist me. She’s handier around the house than I am, and surely we’d find the right flapper together. We went back to the small store to inspect more options.

Arriving at the store, I recognized the eager employee who helped me the day before. He asked the guy behind the counter to help us, and the four of us resumed The Great Flapper Hunt. We looked at them all, again, and found one that looked promising. Returning to the counter to ring it up, we found yet another employee waiting for us, making it five on our team, and this fifth Beatle had his own ideas.

The fifth guy walked us back to The Aisle of Great Flappers, and he found other more exotic flappers farther down the aisle that we hadn’t even seen before. The specter of added possibilities gave us all a shot of hope.

We settled on a flapper that showed incredible promise. We looked at it from all angles, comparing the old one with the new one, back-to-back and side-to-side, confirming without a doubt that we had finally identified The Flapper. The Chosen One.

We took it home and it didn’t work. Strike three.

But like any good hero, I persisted. Before leaving the store, the original small-store helper – the silver-haired man looking very much like Obi Wan Kenobe – raised his finger in the air and recommended what amounted to our last resort. “If this flapper doesn’t work,” he said, “there’s a big specialty plumbing store here in Richmond on Westwood Avenue. It has what you need.”

My wife and I made the long trek to this specialty store, our Land of Oz. The Wicked Witch of Westwood was waiting for us, ready to squeeze a whole new set of mistakes from us.

The Westwood store was a new, unfamiliar and dangerous world of PVC piping, hoses, and new-fangled brass fittings and connectors. There was not one mere aisle of flappers, but an entire building wing devoted to flappers. These flappers were magnificent. They came in unimagined shapes, colors, and sizes, some looking like Star Wars vessels, some like drones, and others like bongs. It was a confusing array of choices that dazzled and blinded and confused us.

Our jaws dropped. We were scared, overwhelmed, and desperate. No help was available. We stood alone and exposed as frauds in the midst of this cacophony of plumbing paraphernalia. We were numb, paralyzed and defeated.

At that moment I remembered what all heroes do when they find themselves in the proverbial belly of the whale. They find a way out. Noting the “Exit” sign, we made haste toward the door, but not before snatching up a cheap tube of plumbing sealant and quickly paying for it.

Our toilet works again. I am now calmed by the sound of intermittent running of water between flushes. The sealant did its job, sort of, on the old misshapen flapper. What was once a problem is now a success story, all thanks to my willingness to believe that I followed the blueprint of the hero’s journey.

The Great Flapper Hunt is over. During an occasional lucid moment, I am reminded that I failed. I then comfort myself with the words of my hero, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who once said: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness, that is life.”

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The 12 Functions of Heroes

This article is excerpted from the book:

Allison, S. T. (Ed.) (2022). The 12 functions of heroes and heroism. Richmond: Palsgrove.

By Scott T. Allison

I’ve been studying and writing about heroes since 2008, when my dear friend and collaborator, George Goethals, and I began writing our first book on heroism, which appeared in print in the Fall of 2010. The book was called, Heroes: Who They Are & Why We Need Them, and one of the strangest things about it is that while we did discuss who our heroes are, we never really addressed the issue of why we need them. That subtitle was our publisher’s idea, and in our book we conveniently avoided tackling the functions of heroes and heroism in our daily lives. The main reason for our avoidance centered on the fact that at that time we just didn’t know! Heroism science didn’t even exist yet, and a lot of interesting and illuminating research had yet to be conducted on this important topic.

A lot has happened since 2008 and 2009, when we composed that little book. Before briefly delving into the evolution of heroism studies, let’s put all our cards on the table and reveal what the 12 functions of heroism. Let’s also keep in mind that there are no doubt more functions than these 12. If I had to guess, there are probably several dozen more functions. But these 12 represent a start, so here goes:

  1. Heroes give us hope
  2. Heroes energize us
  3. Heroes develop us
  4. Heroes heal us
  5. Heroes impart wisdom
  6. Heroes are role models for morality
  7. Heroes offer safety and protection
  8. Heroes give us positive emotions
  9. Heroes give us meaning and purpose
  10. Heroes provide social connection and reduce loneliness
  11. Heroes help individuals achieve personal goals
  12. Heroes help society achieve societal goals

Take a good look at this list of 12 functions. Some things instantly jump out at us. First, it’s pretty clear that heroism offers benefits that span many dimensions of human well-being. There are basic survival benefits (e.g., safety and healing). There are cognitive benefits (e.g., wisdom). There are motivational benefits (e.g., energy). There are emotional benefits (e.g., hope and positivity). There are social benefits (e.g., less loneliness). There are growth benefits (e.g., development). There are spiritual benefits (e.g., morality). There are existential benefits (e.g., meaning and purpose). And there are creativity benefits (e.g., personal and societal goals).

No wonder we have heroes! We need them badly to get us through this challenging experience called life. Heroes help us survive, and they help us thrive. They help us through our worst times, and they prepare us for our best times. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about heroes is that they don’t have to be physically present to help us survive and thrive. Just remembering our heroes can do the job for us. Nostalgia for past heroes, both living and dead, can produce these 12 benefits of heroism (Allison & Green, 2020). Research on the impact of losing a parent at a young age has shown that people carry the departed parent with them forever, holding them in their minds, imagining their emotional support and mentoring (Chater, Howlett, Shorter, Zakrewski-Fruer, & Williams, 2022). We all benefit from the memory our heroes, often in ways we’re unaware of.

In 2014, Goethals and I published a chapter on a set of phenomena that we called the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which describes how our choices of heroes are always in flux. Over the course of the human lifespan, people change in many ways – we pass through various developmental stages, our life circumstances change, and the people and the world around us all change, too. Therefore, our needs and psychological states are always changing. The heroic leadership dynamic proposes that our heroes come and go in ways that match our ever-shifting needs, motivations, and life circumstances. For example, a breast cancer patient may choose a breast cancer survivor as a hero to inspire them. After recovering from cancer, that same person may take up golf and choose a professional golfer as a hero. And so on. Our heroes serve the function of meeting our needs at a particular time and place in our lives, and thus as our lives change, so do our heroes (Allison & Goethals, 2014).

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic proposes two main functions of heroism. First, heroes provide epistemic benefits, also known as wisdom benefits. Heroes and tales of heroism educate us about how to navigate through life, how to meet difficult challenges, how to regulate our emotions, how to resolve the paradoxes of life, how to get help from allies, how to handle our enemies, and how to pass on our hard-earned wisdom to others. Second, heroes provide energizing benefits, which refers to the ability of heroes to inspire us, motivate us, grow us into our best selves, and heal our psychic wounds. Later, our good friend and colleague Olivia Efthimiou added a third benefit, namely, ecological benefits, referring to the ability of heroism to help us interact with larger environmental structures in which we’re all embedded (Efthimiou & Allison, 2017).

In 2015, the highly creative and productive research team in Ireland, headed by Elaine Kinsella and Eric Igou, published a very important article that empirically demonstrated, for the first time, the existence of three functions of heroism (Kinsella, Ritchie, & Igou, 2015). In their Hero Functions Framework, Kinsella et al. found that their participants were able to identify the functions of (1) enhancement, i.e., heroes motivate, inspire, instill hope, and improve morale; (2) moral modeling, i.e., heroes model the values and virtues of society; and (3) protection, i.e., heroes help us, save us, guide us, and defend us against evil and danger. Kinsella and her colleagues also compared the functions of heroism with the functions of leadership, and they present important data showing that heroes offer us unique gifts compared to leaders and role models.

Most recently, my friend and colleague Jeff Green and I have explored some additional functions of heroism based on research on the psychology of nostalgic reminiscences (Hepper et al., 2014). This research shows that people tend to feel nostalgia about heroes from their past — friends and family members, especially. Studies have shown that people also feel nostalgia about their own past heroic accomplishments – for example, the time in the past when they themselves overcame adversity to accomplish something important in their own lives. Heroism, therefore, may be embedded in the content of nostalgic memories. Just as Chater et al. (2022) found that deceased parents continue to move and inspire people, it appears that our fond memories of any past hero can wield positive influence on us long after the hero is gone.

This nostalgic reverie appears to have psychological and behavioral benefits (Sedikides et al., 2015). People higher in nostalgia proneness are more like to be empathic and to behave more prosocially. Nostalgia also increases one’s sense of social connectedness, the depth and range of one’s positive emotions, and one’s ability to achieve personal goals (Allison & Green, 2020). This research suggests that just thinking about our past heroes, or our own past heroic behavior, may serve many important psychological and behavioral functions (Kneuer, Green, & Allison, 2022).

Much more work on the functions of heroism has yet to be done. For more information about the 12 functions of heroism, please check out this book:

Allison, S. T. (Ed.) (2022). The 12 functions of heroes and heroism. Richmond: Palsgrove.

References

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. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Allison, S. T. & Green, J. D. (2020) Nostalgia and heroism: Theoretical convergence of memory, motivation, and function, Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1-13.

Chater, A. M., Howlett, N., Shorter, G. W., Zakrewski-Fruer, J. K., Williams, J. (2022). Reflections experiencing parental bereavement as a young person: A retrospective qualitative study. International Journal of Environments Research and Public Health, 19, 2083.

Efthimiou, O., & Allison, S. T. (2017). Heroism science: Frameworks for an emerging field. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 58, 556-570.

Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Hepper, E. G., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Ritchie, T. D., Yung, Y. F., Hansen, N., Abakoumkin, G., Arikan, G., Cisek, S. Z., Demassosso, D. B., Gebauer, J. E., Gerber, J. P., González, R., Kusumi, T., Misra, G., Rusu, M., Ryan, O., Stephan, E., Vingerhoets, A. J., & Zhou, X. (2014). Pancultural nostalgia: prototypical conceptions across cultures. Emotion (Washington, D.C.)14(4), 733–747.

Kinsella, E.L., Ritchie, T.D., & Igou, E.R. (2015). Lay perspectives on the social and psychological functions of heroes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 130.

Kneuer, M. A., Green, J. D., & Allison, S. T. (2022). In pursuit of important goals: Nostalgia fosters heroic perceptions via social connectedness. Heroism Science, 7(1), 1-29.

Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Hepper, E. G., & Zhou, X. (2015). To nostalgize: Mixing memory with affect and desire. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 189–273.

Heroism Phenomena Identified by Scott Allison’s Research Lab 2005-Present

Below is a partial listing of heroism-related phenomena discovered by Dr. Scott T. Allison’s research lab from 2005 to the present day.

1. The Death Positivity Bias – 2005

The tendency of people to evaluate the dead more favorably than the living. This is one way we “heroify” people.

Allison, S. T., & Eylon, D. (2005). The demise of leadership: Death positivity biases in posthumous impressions of leaders. In D. Messick & R. Kramer (Eds.), The Psychology of Leadership: New Perspectives and Research (pp 295-317). New York: Erlbaum.

2. The Frozen in Time Effect – 2005

People’s tendency to resist changing their impressions of dead heroes compared to living heroes.

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

3. The Underdog Abandonment Effect – 2008

The tendency of people to no longer root for underdog heroes when both their success has low self-relevance and low consequences.

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.

4. The Great Eight Traits of Heroes – 2011

The discovery that people believe that heroes possess the traits of wise, strong, charismatic, caring, resilient, reliable, selfless, and inspiring.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.

5. Social Influence Based Taxonomy of Heroism – 2012

The scientific identification of heroes as Transforming, Transfigured, Traditional, Transparent, Transposed, Tragic, Transitional, Transitory, Trending, and Transcendent.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals. New York: Routledge.

6. The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – 2014

A system of psychological forces that can explain how humans are drawn to heroes, how they benefit from these heroes and their stories, and how heroic tales help people become heroes themselves.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

7. Epistemic and Energizing Functions of Heroism – 2014

The conceptualization of the functions of heroism that includes epistemological needs involving the imparting of wisdom and emerging needs involving healing, growing, and inspiration.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

8. The Johnny Carson Effect – 2014

The tendency of people’s current need states to determine their choice of heroes, with these need-states changing as a function of people’s developmental stages and their changing life circumstances. (named after Johnny Carson’s quip that after all his divorces, his hero changed from Babe Ruth to King Henry VIII)

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2016). Hero worship: The elevation of the human spirit. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 46, 187-210.

9. Six Benefits of Suffering – 2016

The identification of benefits of heroic suffering as offering (1) redemption, (2) developmental progress, (3) humility, (4) compassion, (5) social union, and (6) meaning and purpose.

Allison, S. T., & Setterberg, G. C. (2016). Suffering and sacrifice: Individual and collective benefits, and implications for leadership. In S. T. Allison, C. T. Kocher, & G. R. Goethals (Eds), Frontiers in spiritual leadership: Discovering the better angels of our nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

10. Six Types of Heroic Transformation – 2017

Six commons patterns of transformation in heroes that involve changes in their mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and motivational state.

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., & Kramer, R. M. (2017). Setting the scene: The rise and coalescence of heroism science. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.

11. Three Heroic Transformative Arcs – 2017

The tendency of heroes to transform from a state of egocentricity to sociocentricity; from dependence to autonomy; and from stagnation to growth.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2017). The hero’s transformation. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.

12. The Personal Heroic Imperative – 2018

Each human being’s built-in mandate to fulfill their heroic imperative by imagining and creating their own heroic growth.

Efthimiou, O., Allison, S. T., & Franco, Z. E. (2018). Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st century: Recognizing our personal heroic imperative. In O. Efthimiou, S. T. Allison, & Z. E. Franco (Eds.), Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st Century: Applied and emerging perspectives. New York: Routledge.

13. Transcendent and Trapped Immortality – 2018

The tendency of people to perceive dead heroes and villains differently. Specifically, we believe deceased good-doers achieve transcendent immortality, with their souls persisting beyond space and time; and evil-doers to have trapped immortality, with their souls persisting on Earth, bound to a physical location.

Gray, K., Anderson, S., Doyle, C. M., Hester, N., Schmitt, P., Vonasch, A., Allison, S. T., and Jackson, J. C. (2018). To be immortal, do good or evil. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 868-880.

14. Heroic Lag – 2019

The delay between the point in time when a hero first expresses their heroic message and when mainstream society adopts that message.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2019). The romance of heroism and heroic leadership: Ambiguity, attribution, and apotheosis. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

15. Heroic Consciousness – 2019

The tendency of heroes to demonstrate a mental and experiential approach to the world that is nondualistic, transrational, unitive, and empowered.

Allison, S. T. (2019). Heroic consciousness. Heroism Science, 4, 1-43.

16. Seven Barriers to Heroic Transformation – 2019

The tendency of people to avoid heroic transformation because of self-ignorance, impoverished environments, personal trauma, victim identification, absence of mentors, mental/physical illness, and lack of psychological flexibility.

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., Marrinan, A. R., Parker, O. M., Spyrou, S. P., Stein, M. (2019). The metamorphosis of the hero: Principles, processes, and purpose. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 606.

17. Heroic Leadership Imperative – 2020

The mandate of transforming heroic leaders to meet the individual, collective, and transcendent needs of their followers.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

18. Heroic Wholeness Imperative – 2020

The mandate of leaders to promote psychological wholeness and well-being by meeting the higher-level transcendent needs of followers.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

19. The Hero Androgyny Phenomenon  — 2020

The tendency of heroes to possess both masculine and feminine traits, i.e., agency plus communality.

Hoyt, C. L., Allison, S. T., Barnowski, A., & Sultan, A. (2020). Lay theories of heroism and leadership: The role of gender, communion, and agency. Social Psychology, 51, 381-395.

20. Heroic Autonomy  — 2021

The imperative of the hero to perform the last and most crucial heroic act alone and independent from their friends and mentors.

Allison, S. T. (2021). Beth Harmon’s hero’s journey: The psychology of heroism in The Queen’s Gambit. Richmond: Palsgrove.

21. Heroic Balance  — 2021

The ability of the hero to achieve a healthy life balance needed to achieve their heroic mission. Heroes needs to balance intuition with reason; emotion with logic; self-confidence with humility; autonomy with dependency; personal life with professional life; and more.

Allison, S. T. (2021). Beth Harmon’s hero’s journey: The psychology of heroism in The Queen’s Gambit. Richmond: Palsgrove.

22. Heroism Attribution Error – 2022

The tendency of people to confuse fame for heroism, such that they attribute heroism to celebrities who are famous for non-heroic reasons.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2022). The construction and presentation of heroes and heroines. In K. Lee (Ed.) A cultural history of fame in the modern age. Camden, UK: Bloomsbury Press.

23. Motional Intelligence — 2023

A form of kinesthetic intelligence that enables leaders to move the emotions of their followers. It is the ability of heroic (and villainous) leaders to use their body movements and voices effectively in a way that inspires and mobilizes followers.

Allison, S. T. (2023). Motional intelligence and leadership. In G. R. Goethals, S. T. Allison, & G. J. Sorenson (Eds.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.