Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Call for Papers: The Heroic Screen – Special Issue in Heroism Science



In 2020, our lives are lived on-screen now more than ever. Geographically restricted under lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we rely on computer and phone screens to connect with each other, to keep ourselves informed, and to divert ourselves from the constant barrage of bleakness pervading this year. But even before the coronavirus compounded our dependence on the screen, we’ve used it to game, to watch, to see and be seen.

Though it may not seem like it at this moment of history, the screen is replete with heroism. In addition to the dominant popularity of the superhero genre in film, television and video games, we witness real and fictional screen heroics on a regular basis: from the TV show detective finally catching the bad guy, to viral footage of indomitable Black Lives Matter protesters standing their ground against police violence, to Instagram images of children holding impromptu action-figure memorials to Chadwick Boseman through his inspiring turn as cinematic superhero Black Panther. Across political, cultural and social spectrums, the screen is a site for representing, understanding, demonstrating and transmitting heroism and heroic images.

This issue of Heroism Science invites contributors to widely consider how heroism coincides with the screen. The issue’s remit is purposefully broad in order to invite a range of perspectives and disciplines. As the issue arises during the COVID-19 pandemic, articles can, but are not required to, be COVID-19-centric in nature. Potential topics can include (but are not limited to):

  • Capturing heroic acts through smartphones
  • News broadcasts and the coverage of heroism and heroic acts
  • The heroism of fictional police as a contrast to the real police violence of 2020
  • Heroic and superheroic characters and narratives in screen fiction
  • Affordances of screen platforms and how they depict heroism (eg. Video games vs. television)
  • Medical heroes and the screen during COVID-19
  • Heroism, community and the unifying screen during COVID-19
  • Queer heroism on-screen
  • Whistleblowing and heroism
  • Psychological and cognitive processing of screen heroism
  • Heroic acts left out of or not captured on screen
  • Heroism and immersion in video gaming
  • Celebrity/persona heroics on social media
  • The screen as coordinator for heroism through organizing protests and civic action
  • The screen memorializing heroism

Interested contributors should submit an abstract of no more than 250 words and a short bio by 15 December 2020. Successful contributors will be informed in early January 2021, for submission of full papers in April 2021.

Please direct submissions and any questions to the editor, Dr. Chris Comerford, at

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Heroic Lag: The Time It Takes Society To Catch Up With Its Heroes

By Scott T. Allison

“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.” — Marshall McLuhan

In one of our recent books, we introduced the term heroic lag, referring to heroes being ahead of their time, and society resisting the hero – at first. There are many examples of a hero championing ideas that are so radical that the hero is initially seen as a villain but then later viewed as a hero.

During the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony was reviled for promoting women’s suffrage and is now a cultural icon. In the early 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr., was despised by most of America for leading the civil rights movement, yet now we have a holiday honoring his accomplishments.

The Black Lives Matter movement, established in 2013 in response to police shootings of unarmed Black citizens, was unpopular among mainstream Americans for years. In May of 2020, the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer, captured on video, seemed to represent the tipping point in public opinion. By June of 2020, support for the Black Lives Matter movement had reached 76 percent of Americans. This number was a significant departure from 2013 when a majority of voters disagreed with Black Lives Matter.

We’re also witnessing a rise in public approval of Colin Kaepernick, who for years was widely condemned for kneeling during the playing of the American national anthem. Heroic lag seems to have run its course, as the NFL is now embracing Kaepernick. In a video released in June of 2020, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said: “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much needed change in this country.”

Heroes are ahead of their time, and history has shown that almost all people ahead of their time are vilified, and often even assassinated. The dark period of heroic lag cost the lives of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It can take years, even generations, for the general public to catch up to the level of moral development of a heroic prophet.

In a perfect world, there would be no heroic lag. A new, good way of doing things would be proposed and people would accept it. But a sad truism in psychology is that people resist change, especially any change that threatens one’s ego or one’s tribe.

Heroic lag appears inevitable in any system in which there is some uncertainty about truth and objective reality. In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger was argued that in the absence of objective reality, social reality becomes paramount. Social reality, however, is vulnerable to distortions, biases, emotions, and motivations, making it slow to evolve.

But we can take heart in a great truth articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., who once observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We can be reassured that despite heroic lag, the moral truth of a heroic principle eventually becomes acknowledged and revered.

But there is a great cost to heroic lag. Good people die and society suffers great losses before a heroic ideal gains popular acceptance. Heroic lag is fed by psychological and structural barriers to progress. The American two-party system creates an ingroup versus outgroup mentality in which one’s party affiliation often determines one’s position on the issues. Tribal delineations are rarely a good route to resolve ambiguity. Such delineations only increase heroic lag and prolong cultural suffering.


Denver Post (2020). Colin Kaepernick has more support now, still a long way to go. Retrieved from

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

New York Times (2020). How public opinion has moved on Black Lives Matter. Retrieved from


Psychological Phenomena Discovered by Scott T. Allison’s Research Lab, 1985 – Present

Below is a partial listing of phenomena discovered by Dr. Scott T. Allison’s research lab from 1985 to the present day.

1. The Group Attribution Error – 1985

The tendency to overlook the power of group decision rules in producing group outcomes, leading to the inference that group outcomes reflect group members’ attitudes.

Allison, S. T., & Messick, D. M. (1985). The group attribution error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 21, 563-579.

2. The Illusion of Attitude Change – 1987

People’s tendency to use two decision outcomes to assume that attitude change has occurred, overlooking the role of two difference decision rules.

Mackie, D. M., & Allison, S. T. (1987). Group attribution errors and the illusion of group attitude change. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 23, 460-480.

3. The Feature-Positive Effect on Attitude and Consensus Judgments – 1988

The tendency of actions to exert a stronger effect on attitudes and consensus judgements compared inactions.

Allison, S. T., & Messick, D. M. (1988). The feature-positive effect, attitude strength, and degree of perceived consensus. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14, 231-241.

4. Muhammad Ali Effect – 1989

The tendency of people to rate themselves as more moral than others but not necessarily as more intelligent than others. (based on a quip from Ali who said after failing the Army entrance exam, ‘I never said I was the smartest, only the greatest’)

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.

5. Constructive Social Comparison – 1991

The phenomenon of people’s needs and motivations biasing their social comparisons in a self-serving manner.

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.

6. Nonpartitioned Resource Overconsumption Effect – 1992

The tendency of people to consume more than their fair share of a common resource when they resource is nonpartitioned in nature compared to when it is partitioned.

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.

7. Group Correspondence Biases in Public Goods Tasks – 1994

The bias in assuming that a successful outcome in public goods tasks is diagnostic of group members’ level of cooperation and competence.

Allison, S. T., & Kerr, N. L. (1994). Group correspondence biases and the provision of public goods. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 688-698.

8. Metaphor-Based Hypotheses in Social Dilemma Research – 1996

The strategy of scientists to employ metaphorical images to inform their research on social dilemma situations.

Allison, S. T., Beggan, J. K., & Midgley, E. H. (1996). The quest for ‘similar instances’ and ‘simultaneous possibilities’: Metaphors in social dilemma research. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 479-497.

9. Unintended Resource Overconsumption Effect – 1997

The tendency of people to accidentally overconsume common resources.

Herlocker, C. E., Allison, S. T., Foubert, J. D., & Beggan, J. K. (1997). Intended and unintended overconsumption of physical, spatial, and temporal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 992-1004.

10. Two-Stage Process Model of Shared Resource Consumption – 2000

A psychological model of resource consumption that consists of an initial application of a “divide equally” rule followed by an adjustment from this rule in a self-serving direction.

Roch,  S., Samuelson, C., Allison, S. T., & Dent, J. (2000). Cognitive load and the equality heuristic: A two stage model of resource overconsumption in small groups. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 83, 185-212.

11. The Paradox of Ambiguous Information – 2002

The tendency of people to judge ambiguous information as less important than nonambiguous information despite preferring to share ambiguous information with their collaborators.

Eylon, D., & Allison, S. T. (2002). The paradox of ambiguity in cooperative and competitive organizational settings. Group and Organization Management, 27, 172-208.

12. The Death Positivity Bias – 2005

The tendency of people to evaluate the dead more favorably than the living.

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.

13. The Frozen in Time Effect – 2005

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

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

14. The Underdog Abandonment Effect – 2008

The tendency of people to no longer root for the underdog when both self‐relevance and consequences are low.

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.

15. 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.

16. 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.

17. 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.

18. 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.

19. 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.

20. Six Benefits of Suffering – 2016

The identification of benefits of 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.

21. 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.

22. 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.

23. 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.

24. Transcendent and Trapped Immortality – 2018

The tendency of good-doers to attain 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.

25. 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.

26. The Hero’s 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.

27. 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.

28. 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.

29. The Hero Androgyny Effect — 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.

30. Motional Intelligence — 2022

The ability of leaders to use bodily movements to inspire followers.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2022). Motional intelligence: The ability of leaders to move, and move others. Cambridge University Press.

31. Heroism Attribution Error – 2022

The tendency of people to confuse fame for heroism, such that they attribute heroism to celebrities who are merely famous.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2022). The construction and presentation of heroes and heroines. In P. David Marshall (Ed.), A cultural history of fame. Camden, UK: Bloomsbury Press.

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What Awakens Us? Nature, Love, and Suffering

women eye airbrush painting, clouds sky effect

By Scott T. Allison

One of my favorite topics is how we grow throughout our lifespan to become our best selves, our truest selves. My colleagues and I have written about how human development parallels the metamorphosis that people undergo to become heroes. This parallel suggests that we’re all meant to grow into the hero of our own life journey.

What triggers our personal growth spurts?

The consensus of people from all backgrounds, especially from psychology and spirituality, seems to be that three mechanisms exist that propel us toward self-growth and transformation. These mechanisms are nature, love, and suffering.

These three phenomena don’t operate independently – they are bundled together, interdependent, working in combination to help us blossom into our best selves.

Briefly, here’s how these three processes tend to work:

1. Nature

One important truth about human transformation is that natural processes are in place for it to happen. We don’t have to plan it or engineer it. In fact, if we do try to impose our will on its genesis and direction, we may be worse off.

A child, for example, doesn’t have to do much to grow physically. Nature arranges physical transformation to happen in a sequence of stages. We always have to do our small part, however. By eating right and getting exercise, we can allow natural physical growth to unfold in healthy ways.

The same is true for emotional and spiritual transformation. By nature, these areas of growth are programmed into us. But again, we have to do our part — and “we” means as a community, not in isolation. We need parents and social bonding to nurture us, and we must make choices that cultivate social connections with people who are good for us.

Nature supplies us with the raw materials for our awakening, and it’s up to us to work with nature to reach our fullest potential.

2. Love

Love is central to personal transformation. Some of the most powerful stories in literature and film are tales of a person who is stuck in an immature stage of development. A situation arises in the person’s life that opens their heart to love, and quite suddenly, the person is transformed into their best self.

There are many examples. In the movie Groundhog Day, our hero Phil Connors is a selfish, depressed jerk. But then he finds his colleague Rita, who role-models selflessness, love, and enlightenment. Phil’s love for Rita transforms him into his best self.

Storytelling reminds us that any kind of love can transform us, not just romantic love. The Grinch, for example, steals all the Christmas presents from Whoville, only to discover that all the Whos down in Whoville don’t care about material things. They only care about the Christmas message of love. Once he absorbs this message, the Grinch is transformed into his best self.

3. Suffering

Richard Rohr once observed that suffering awakens us because it makes us more receptive to loving and learning. Suffering is humbling, and we know that humility opens us up to trying new ways of seeing the world.

Every spiritual tradition emphasizes the role of suffering in heroically transforming us. For Buddhists, suffering is the necessary path to enlightenment, as expressed in the Four Noble Truths. The First Truth is that suffering is an inevitable part of life. The Second Truth is that our suffering is caused by selfish desires and attachments. The Third Truth is that we can let go of these selfish pursuits. The Fourth Truth lays out the path for transforming our suffering.

Christianity also regards suffering as the key to heroic transformation. The symbol of Christianity, the cross, is emblematic of the immense suffering experienced by Christ during his crucifixion. Christ’s suffering is culminated by his resurrection, which is the ultimate transformation from mere flesh to the highest possible state of existence. The story of Jesus helps us trust that suffering is the path to becoming our best selves.

I’ve written about how suffering can produce many psychological benefits. Specifically, suffering (1) has redemptive qualities, (2) signifies important developmental milestones, (3) fosters humility, (4) elevates compassion, (5) encourages social union and action, and (6) provides meaning and purpose.


Suffering is an inescapable part of life. People spend their lives avoiding it, yet we do so at our own peril. Carl Jung once noted, “Every psychic advance of man arises from the suffering of the soul.” Yet while some suffering is necessary, let’s remember that some suffering is unnecessary. As Alcoholics Anonymous cautions its members, we should “avoid the deliberate manufacture of misery.” Yet when suffering knocks on our door, we can open it and embrace its gifts.


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

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., & 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.

Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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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Statues Controversy Suggests There Are No Heroes, Only Heroic Actions

By Scott T. Allison

In Sweden, there is a fascinating statue of a woman named Danuta Danielsson who became a hero in 1985 when she used her purse to clobber a white Nazi supremacist while he marched in a right-wing rally.

What makes her statue unique among hero statues is that it captures her performing the heroic act of swinging her purse. It’s entirely an action-shot, a big departure from the universal practice of constructing hero statues intended to portray individuals as heroes. Danielsson’s statue isn’t about her as a person; it’s about her one specific act of courage that day.

Heroism, it could be argued, describes an action, not a person.

All around the world, and especially in the United States, statues of slave traders, warriors, and profiteers are toppling to the ground. Once revered as heroes, these statued individuals have been exposed as villainous human rights violators.

With this in mind, Danuta Danielsson’s statue should be one that remains uncontroversial. Her statue portrays a heroic act that can withstand any scrutiny into her character.

What did we know about Danielsson’s character? We know that her mother had survived a concentration camp during World War II. Danielsson knew the horrors of the Nazi menace and took action on that April day in Sweden.

But like all human beings, Danielsson had a dark side. That aspect of her character, however, is irrelevant to her heroic act of clobbering a marching Nazi, an image nicely captured by her statue in vivid heroic detail.

Perhaps there should be no hero statues, only heroic action statues. Many of our tarnished heroes performed untarnished heroic actions. It’s those behaviors that we admire, those courageous, risky, selfless actions that forever made a positive difference for society.

For example, let’s see a statue of Thomas Jefferson composing the Declaration of Independence. Such a statue acknowledges Jefferson’s heroic action without any idolatry of the man, without any of vitriol about whether he’s deserving of the status of “hero”.

Today we see statues of Confederate generals, Christopher Columbus, slave traders, and Spanish conquistadors toppling to the ground. Roads and schools named after these individuals are also being changed. We are reminded that a hero is a social construction, tied to the norms and values of a particular era.

Heroic actions, in contrast, are more likely to transcend human time periods. While all humans are flawed and perhaps not deserving of adoration, a morally sublime act is pure and transcendent.

The famous German author and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “The deed is everything, the glory is naught.” In building our statues, let’s remember that actions not only speak louder than words, they may outshine — and outlast — the person performing the action.

People are more likely to disagree about who a hero is than about what specific action is heroic. For that reason, let’s honor and celebrate heroic actions that can inspire us all to behave heroically.

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Scott T. Allison is Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond. Another version of this article appears in Psychology Today.

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The Unification Principle of Heroism in the Age of COVID-19

By Scott T. Allison

Heroism is defined by researchers as extreme prosocial behavior that is performed voluntarily, involves significant risk, requires sacrifice, and is done without anticipation of person gain.

The devastating effects of COVID-19 on individuals and on societies worldwide bring into sharp relief what “extreme prosocial behavior” really means.

I argue here that heroism’s primary aim is to unify people. The dictionary’s definition of “unify” is to take actions that make people united and whole. Let’s break down these two components of unification, illustrating how they are the central mission of heroism.

First, to unify is to unite people. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, ER nurse Allison Swendsen took a moving photo of an elderly man holding a sign at a window, thanking healthcare workers for saving his wife.

These heroes allowed this woman to reunite with her husband. Heroism always involves bringing people together.

Second, to unify is to promote wholeness, the mark of health and well-being. We can see that all heroic actions during this COVID-19 pandemic are aimed at reducing suffering and promoting the health and well-being of individuals and society. Heroes strive to promote the wholeness of all people, not just some of them. Heroism is always all-inclusive.

The Unification Principle of Heroism

A simple rule of thumb for distinguishing between heroes and villains is this: Heroes tend to be unifiers, whereas villains tend to be dividers.

Villains throughout history have made it their goal to divide human beings, with their divisions inflicting terrible human suffering and death. Genocidal leaders from Adolf Hitler to Pol Pot made it their aim to promote the well-being of one group of people at the expense of another. Dividing the world between “us” and “them” isn’t always villainous, but when doing so exacts intense suffering on members of the out-group, then such dividers are villains.

Heroes, in contrast, adopt a more “nondual” view of the world. They see humanity as one and value the well-being of all people regardless of nationality, race, gender, age, or sexuality. Because they strive for social unity, heroes aim to eliminate disparities in health and well-being, not just disparities between group categories but also disparities among individuals within categories, too.

The unification principle of heroism operates at the levels of both large collectives and single individuals. At the group level, heroes unify people by leading civil rights movements, for example. The goal of most social movements is to reduce suffering in disadvantaged groups by creating a more equal and united society. Our cultural heroes have always made it their primary aim to unify the world. Heroic legends such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malala Yousafzai, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Nelson Mandela all devoted their life’s work to bring people of different colors, genders, ethnicities, and geographic regions together.

Unification operating at the individual level occurs when a hero saves a person from harm. If a hero rescues someone from a burning building, the hero has allowed for the reunification of the person with their family. Whether the goal is large scale (e.g., ending apartheid) or small-scale (e.g., saving someone from drowning), the hero is striving to achieve unity, wholeness and well-being, either within a society, a family, or an individual.

Perhaps the goal of unifying people has always been heroism’s primary aim. Back in 1949, the progenitor of heroism science, Joseph Campbell, observed that the goal of the mythic hero’s journey is always to return home and become united with family and community. “Where we had thought to be alone,” wrote Campbell, “we shall be with all the world.”

COVID-19 Amplifies the Need for Heroic Unification

Every crisis produces heroes who illustrate the unification principle of heroism. Perhaps more than any single event in recent history, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the heroic imperative to unify people. Everyday unsung heroes, such as healthcare workers and first responders, strive to reunite a saved individual with their loved ones. Heroism is always about social unification.

All crises and disasters tend to engender suffering by widening already existing health disparities between people. Consider what any tsunami, earthquake, or major act of terrorism does to people caught in its swath. The physical, emotional, and financial suffering that existed before a major crisis becomes magnified during and after it.

COVID-19 reminds us that the “exceptional prosocial behavior” at the heart of heroism is aimed at reducing existing disparities in well-being, at easing the suffering of one segment of society, at unifying humanity by promoting the welfare of everyone. Heroic scientists racing to develop a vaccine and other treatments for the virus are doing so to benefit all of humanity, not just one segment of it. Jonas Salk became a hero for developing the vaccine for polio, and the vaccine developers for COVID will also likely become cherished heroes as well.

The coronavirus has been especially adept at preying on disparities. People of color have been more adversely affected by COVID-19 compared to Euro-Americans. African-Americans, for example, are less able to take the precaution of staying at home because they are less likely to have jobs that allow them to telecommute. In addition, people of color are more likely to live in crowded housing units that make social distancing difficult.

COVID-19 has also magnified disparities in income, with high-income earners being more likely to maintain their employment during the crisis compared low-income workers. Millions of jobs in the lower paying service and hospitality industries have been lost, many of them permanently. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, already alarmingly large throughout the world, has expanded as a result of COVID-19. Growing disparities in health and in wealth are, at this moment, inflicting tremendous suffering.

The heroes attempting to resolve the current pandemic crisis are working, either directly or indirectly, to achieve the heroic imperative of wholeness and unification across race and class. Reducing health and income disparities is the heroic goal of medical scientists searching for a cure, and should be the heroic goal of our political leaders faced with the task of rebuilding and reunifying society.

The Drive for Unification

The unification principle of heroism has always been an implied element of the definition of the term “hero”. Famed psychologist Phil Zimbardo hinted at unity and wholeness when he argued in 2011 that heroism reflects “a concern for other people in need.” Zimbardo has also referred to unification as sociocentricity, the mindset of looking out for collective well-being. Meeting everyone’s basic needs unifies them with the world and is the imperative of all heroes.

In her recent book on heroism, Elizabeth Svoboda emphasized that “heroes bring people together”. They do so by working for justice and by alleviating suffering, thereby enhancing both psychological wholeness at the individual level and social wholeness at the level of community.

This idea of unification has ancient roots, with world religions from Buddhism to Christianity having long made unification their primary aim. Jesus prayed “that they all may be one” (John 17:21) and Buddha observed that humanity is “many in body, one in mind.” Today’s spiritual geniuses, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, and Richard Rohr, place unitive consciousness at the forefront of their definition of psychological well-being and spiritual maturity.

Merriam-Webster defined heroism as “heroic conduct especially as exhibited in fulfilling a high purpose or attaining a noble end.” That noble end is the unification of all human beings. Joseph Campbell himself noted that heroes do not distinguish their own fate from that of others. Heroes, said Campbell, are guided by the “true reality” that we are all in “unity with all life.”

Our most iconic cultural heroes have long argued for the imperative of human unification. The famed poet Maya Angelou said that a hero “is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.” Martin Luther King, Jr., said: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” And from J. K. Rowling: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

Consider also a thoughtful quote from Albert Einstein (1950): “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Pragmatics: How to Achieve Unification

In this article I’ve argued that the most fundamental goal of heroic action is to unify people. Research on the attributes of a hero places wisdom near the center of heroic consciousness. One might think that I am pushing for the idea that understanding the “oneness” of people, the interconnectedness of all things, is true wisdom.

That’s only partially correct. We cannot escape the reality that true heroic wisdom resides in knowing how best to implement unification in a highly charged, politically polarized world. In the USA, for example, the conservative push for building walls between America and the rest of the world clashes with the liberal push for more open borders and globalization. Heroic wisdom, grounded in unification, resides in negotiating a balance between these two positions. Opening the borders would result in chaos and the collapse of necessary infrastructure; closing the borders lacks compassion and decency. Wise leaders are needed to navigate a workable path between these two extreme positions.

The unification principle of heroism is always about reducing disparities, and this includes disparities in extreme ideology. Heroic solutions to difficult problems require hard work, and the hard work of unifying humanity’s ideological divide must necessarily involve actions that seemingly clash with our tribal instinct to partition the world into “us” versus “them”.

True heroes tend not to view the world only in binary or dualistic terms. In our desire to unify humanity, it is the height of hypocrisy to divide the world into those who are “right” about a complicated issue such as immigration and those who are “wrong” about it. The means to achieving an end state of wholeness must also be faithful to the goal of wholeness. Unification as a goal also requires unification as a process.

I am not claiming that compromise is always the answer. Nondual thinking can lead to compromise, but it can also lead to taking a firm stance on one side of an issue. Heroic consciousness, for example, would never adopt a compromising position with Hitler’s final solution. Many of the world’s most pressing problems, from climate change to COVID-19, involve morally complicated issues that require a balanced heroic unification approach.

I offer two pragmatic solutions to achieving heroic unification, one psychological and one interpersonal. The psychological approach centers on our individual imperative to assume heroic consciousness in all our interactions with others. The three “A”s offer a promising technique: Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. First, try to become aware of the default tendency to dualistically lump people into categories of good and bad, us and them, and smart and dumb. Recognize that these divisions run counter to the goal of heroic unification.

Second, accept that we are all human and prone to binary thinking. Accept that engagement in social media magnifies this bias and stirs up negative emotions, and accept that each one of us is powerless over how other people think and behave. Once we practice mindful awareness and acceptance, we are in a good position to take heroic action. Sometimes doing nothing at all is the appropriate response. More often than not, the heroic response is to show gentle compassion – for ourselves, for others, and for our broken world.

Another pragmatic strategy for bringing about heroic unification involves using strategies endorsed by an organization called Braver Angels, which is dedicated to depolarizing the world. Braver Angels teaches interpersonal skills that promote respect, curiosity, and openness between parties who differ ideologically. Braver Angels focuses on recognizing common values and concerns; setting a constructive tone; promoting listening in a way that makes the other person feel heard; helping us speak in a way that enables the other person hear you; and teaching techniques that help us handle difficult interpersonal moments.

Our heroic imperative is to resist our baser instincts to label and categorize, and to embrace ways of thinking and behaving that bring people together. Heroes unify the world by ending suffering, and by listening and negotiating with great compassion. This is the heroic work we desperately need in the age of COVID-19 and beyond.


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