Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Heroism Science: The Field, the Journal, the Conference

By Scott T. Allison

Although the field of heroism science is roughly two decades old, many people still wonder what the science is, and what it seeks to accomplish.

So here’s a brief description:

Since the year 2000, roughly, there has been a new (or renewed) scientific interest in topics such as morality, cooperation, altruism, wisdom, meaning, purpose, resilience, hope, flow, human growth, courage, empathy, spirituality, health, public service, self-control, emotional intelligence, and character strengths. The past decade especially has witnessed a surge in research on exceptional individuals who best exemplify these positive qualities: heroes and heroic leaders.

Heroism science is a multiple disciplinary field which seeks to understand heroism, the hero’s journey and heroic leadership through three lenses. First, scholars seek to understand the origins of heroism. Second, they aim to identify the many different types of heroism. Third, they seek to illuminate the many processes associated with heroism. These processes can be biological, psychological, sociocultural, and more.

Heroism scientists use of a mix of traditional and new approaches in a wide variety of settings — pedagogy, crisis management, healthcare, counseling, workforce, community development, popular media, online activism, human rights, international relations, digital humanities, to name a few. Heroism science is part of a broader movement that aims to foster holistic well-being, promote heroic awareness and action, civic responsibility and engagement, and build resilient individuals and communities.

As Editor of the field’s flagship journal, Heroism Science, I’m happy to report that the growing multidiscipline of heroism science is doing quite well.

The journal has published dozens of articles authored by the top scholars in the field. In the past two years, there have been over 25,000 downloads of articles published in the journal.  In addition, three special issues in the journal have enjoyed great success. The latest, our special issue on whistleblowers as heroes, has just gotten off the ground and is proving to be especially interesting.

Here are the stated aims of the journal:

Heroism Science is a peer-reviewed open source research journal that aims to advance heroism science theory, research, and application from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives to researchers and the broader community. Contributions from all disciplines are welcome, and cross-disciplinary work, student contributions, non-Western perspectives, and approaches that address racial, ethnic and gender disparities and issues are especially welcome. Heroism Science is the official journal of the Heroic Imagination Project.

I am especially grateful to our Associate Editor, Elaine Kinsella, and to our Production Editor, Smaragda Spyrou. We’d be in dire straights without the contributions of these two outstanding colleagues.

Elaine, in particular, is to be commended for successfully co-hosting (with Eric Igou) the latest biennial Heroism Science conference. The meeting was intended to be in Ireland in 2020, but with the pandemic Elaine and Eric had to postpone until 2021. They wisely decided to make the conference a virtual one, and the entire event was a rousing triumph.

The next heroism science conference will be hosted by Peter Bray in New Zealand in 2023.

Heroism scientists have recently started a Listserve that communicates the latest activities in the field and allows for an open discussion of topics of interest to devotees of heroes and heroism. If you’d like to be included in this Listserve, please contact Golan Shahar at Ben-Gurion University.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Cognitive Biases That Can Undermine Good Leadership

By Scott T. Allison

People are known to distort reality and show bias in their judgments in systematic ways. Leaders themselves are all-too human in demonstrating these cognitive biases.  Steven J. Stroessner and Brett N. Hu at Barnard College have recently written about these biases in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies, co-edited by George R. Goethals, Scott T. Allison, and Georgia J. Sorenson, which will be published in 2023.

According to Stroessner and Hu, there are three classes of cognitive biases that leadership must be especially careful in navigating. These biases are: (1) conservative biases; (2) information processing biases; and (3) egocentric biases.

1. Conservative Biases

Write Stroessner and Hu: “People tend to be excessively conservative regarding information processing, regularly forming premature conclusions, holding them too firmly given new information, and defending them even when they are no longer tenable given changing conditions. Therefore, leaders regularly demonstrate a status quo bias, a preference to maintain current states.”

One tragic example is when political leaders justify the continuation of a war based on the number of lives already lost rather than on the prospects for a successful outcome. In the early 1970s, the US remained in the Vietnam conflict despite knowing that the war was unwinnable. Leaders’ excuse at the time was that “honor” needed to preserved.

Leaders also show a confirmatory bias, looking for information that confirms their opinions while simultaneously ignoring contradictory information. Confirmatory bias at a group level can lead to groupthink, a diseased form of group decision making in which group members suppress arguments that challenge a leader’s expressed preference.

2. Information Processing Biases

Leaders must gather information to make decisions, and at times leaders are over-reliant on simple rules of thumb called heuristics. The availability heuristic involves the ease with which information can be accessed from memory. For example, people tend to erroneously judge that dying from a tornado is more common than dying from stomach cancer. More people die from the latter but media coverage focuses on the former.

The representativeness heuristic refers to an over-reliance on the similarity of an event to a typical instance of that event. For example, people erroneously believe that six coin-tosses heads-tails-tails-heads-tails-heads are more “random” than six tosses of heads-heads-heads-tails-tails-tails.

A leader’s judgments can also be biased by how a problem is framed. Psychologists have found that the pain associated with loss is greater than the pleasure associated with gain. Thus, a decision problem framed as a loss will lead to different judgments — often a more conservative judgment — than the same problem framed as a gain.

3. Egocentric Biases

The egocentric bias refers the tendency to view oneself or one’s group as superior to others.

The false consensus bias leads people to think that their own preferences and views are widely shared. When this bias is challenged by people expressing opposing views, they tend to be criticized or dismissed.

The self-serving bias refers to the tendency of people to view themselves in a favorable light, exaggerating positive attributes and minimizing negative ones. For example, people view themselves as more moral and competent than others. This bias explains the all too common tendency of leaders to take responsibility for successes but avoid blame for failures.

Ingroup biases involve the belief that one’s own group is better than other groups. While ingroup bias can facilitate ingroup cohesion and self-esteem within the group, it leads to prejudice and discrimination directed toward outgroup members.

The more leaders are made aware of these biases, the better their decision making can be. Awareness does not always eliminate cognitive biases, but they can reduce them. Here is the reference/citation for the encyclopedia:

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

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


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 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.

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. 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.

27. 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.

28. 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.

29. 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.

30. 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.

31. 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.

32. 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.

33. 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.

34. Motional Intelligence — 2023

The ability of leaders to use their bodily movements effectively in such a way to inspire and mobilize 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.



– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

10 Life Lessons We Can Learn From Donald Trump

By Scott T. Allison

Years ago, my mother taught me that we can learn something important from every person that we encounter. Donald Trump, the 45th US President recently defeated in the 2020 election, was someone from whom we can learn many enduring lessons about how to live a healthy and happy life.

Here are ten such life lessons that Donald Trump taught us:

1. The importance of humility

Known as the mother of all virtues, humility is the antidote to pride and narcissism. While many public figures are narcissists, Donald Trump was an extreme one. He had a grandiose sense of self-importance, sought praise and admiration, bullied and intimidated others, and believed that many basic rules of life didn’t apply to him. His ego would not allow him to accept his loss to Biden in the 2020 election. As a result of his toxic narcissism, Trump was in constant legal trouble, had a long track record of volatile and broken relationships, and almost destroyed America’s democracy. The lesson is clear: humility plays a pivotal role in living a happy, healthy life.

2. The importance of growing throughout the lifespan

Dozens of psychologists over the past century have proposed stages of human growth and development. These stages involve moral, emotional, spiritual, social, and other types of development. People are meant to evolve into caring, sociable, emotionally stable beings. Donald Trump’s volatility, egotism, friendlessness, and penchant for wrongdoing all suggest that he is stuck at very early, immature stages of development. The lesson is clear: we are designed to grow into our best selves, capable of cultivating healthy habits and healthy relationships.

3. The importance of unifying people

Heroic leaders succeed in unifying people. Consider Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They saw all people as valuable regardless of color, nationality, religion, and more. Heroes build unity, whereas villains foment discord and divide people. Donald Trump spent his four years in the White House disparaging people of Mexican, Arab, and Chinese descent. He also vilified Democrats and any media who disagreed with him, and he was even willing for the US to go to civil war rather than accept his loss in the 2020 election. The lesson is clear: Good people and good leaders brings us together rather than divide us.

4. The importance of role modeling appropriate behavior

Good leaders are role models who set a good example and give cues about appropriate behavior. Psychologists know this from the famous Milgram obedience study. When the experimenter told research participants that it was okay to apply painful electric shocks to another person, they did so. Donald Trump made daily hostile attacks toward others on Twitter and at his rallies. Those attacks encouraged his followers to show intolerance and direct violence toward others. The lesson is clear: it is up to each of us, especially our leaders, to role model kind, loving behavior.

5. The importance of planning for future generations

During his term as president, Donald Trump rolled back nearly 100 environmental protection rules and laws designed to provide future generations of people with clean water and air, and to protect animal life. He did this during a time of mass extinctions and unprecedented climate change. For Trump, it was all about short term gain at the expense of long term well-being. The lesson is clear: It is up to each of us, especially our leaders, to think of the well-being of the next several generations.

6. The importance of science

While he was president, Trump repeatedly disregarded the recommendations of scientists and the medical community. He boasted that his instincts were more reliable than factual data. His disregard of science damaged our planet and caused thousands to die from COVID-19. The lesson is clear: if humanity is to survive, leaders need to listen to science and act on the recommendations of scientists.

7. The importance of truth-telling

Although almost all politicians take liberties with the truth, Trump took outright deception to a new level. His mountain of lies could always be verified by objective fact-checking organizations. Trump’s prevarications got so bad that Twitter would censor him and news organizations would cut away from his news conferences to set the record straight. His Big Lie, the one all authoritarian leaders use to abuse power, was that Joe Biden won the 2020 election fraudulently. The lesson is clear: Good leaders, and good people, tell the truth.

8. The importance of cultivating loving relationships

Like most narcissists, Trump had a long history of mistreating people and sabotaging relationships. He was belligerent and bullying in real life, and especially on Twitter. He routinely abused and bullied women, and was estranged from many of his friends and associates. The lesson is clear: healthy people enjoy stable, loving relationships with others.

9. The importance of good leadership and followership

This article has outlined several criteria for good leadership. But just as important is good followership. Followers should be wary of overly self-confident leaders. Even more importantly, followers need to question leaders who scapegoat others, who diminish others, and who stir up anger. The lesson is clear: good leaders bring out the best in us, and if they don’t, it’s up to followers to replace those leaders.

10. The importance of not being a cautionary tale

The most important reason for being a good human is that it’s the right thing to do. If that weren’t enough, consider the legacy issue: How do we want to be remembered? Trump’s legacy is one of dishonesty, corruption, abuse of power, treason, and disregard for our planetary ecosystem. He got all the fame that he craved for, but at great cost to his name and to all of humanity. The lesson is clear: do not be a cautionary tale.

Donald Trump isn’t the only politician who has these ten lessons to teach. Many disastrous leaders in history have similarly tarnished legacies. No single American politician, however, has ever illustrated these ten life lessons with such clarity and urgency. Let’s all work at becoming our best selves, not our worst. And let’s be sure to elect our best leaders, who are always those who help bring out the best in all people.


The Obligation to Greatness

By Scott T. Allison

Recently, sports journalist Tony Kornheiser, co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, discussed Tiger Woods’ scoring a septuple bogey 10 on a par 3 in the final round of the 2020 Masters golf tournament.

Kornheiser didn’t talk at all about Tiger’s shotmaking gaffes. Instead he focused on what Tiger did after carding his disastrous score.

Tiger birdied 5 of the next 6 holes, a feat that Kornheiser called, “The Obligation to Greatness”.

I was struck by this line and immediately Googled it to see its origins and usage. To my surprise, “the obligation to greatness” appears most often in a religious context, referring to our call to transcend our earthly ambitions. From this perspective, the obligation to greatness is God’s wish for us to become our best selves.

My feelings about this phrase, “the obligation to greatness”, are a mix of inspiration and cautionary dread.

The inspiration is the more obvious emotion. All my work on heroism this past decade has focused on helping and encouraging people to reach their fullest, most heroic potential. Despite life’s challenges, and maybe even because of them, we can all be heroes. We can overcome our struggles, and our suffering, to offer hope to others, help others, and thus make a positive difference in the world.

The caution I feel about “the obligation to greatness” is that it may feel like a burden to those who are not yet ready to heed the call. For many of us right now, life is one slap in the face after another. There are economic challenges. There are the hurts of broken relationships. There are health challenges. Achieving “greatness” may be the last thing on our minds. Just getting through the day seems like challenge enough.

So where does that leave us? Wrapping our minds around “the obligation to greatness” may require a creative tension. We can trust that the obligation is there, but only when we are ready to fulfill it. Not before.

During our struggles, we can trust, even to a slight degree, that something bigger and better is waiting for us. Trusting the process is very hard when there are bills to pay, hurts to mend, and tears to shed. This is why so many good mentors encourage us to hold on.

So today, I am telling you:  Hold on.  I am here for you. I am telling you that even by holding onto life by a thread, you are fulfilling your obligation to greatness, whether you are aware of it or not.

– – – – – – – – –



Growth, Wholeness, and Intelligence are at the Core of the Universal Journey

By Scott T. Allison

A central part of Joseph Campbell’s (1949) genius resided in his ability to see a universal journey among all the great heroes of mythology across the globe and throughout all time periods in human history. Swimme and Tucker (2011) take this universality to its furthest extreme in suggesting that the hero’s journey and the human journey – which are arguably one and the same – represent a microcosm of the journey of the entire known physical universe.

They propose that “the universe is best understood not as discrete incidents of evolution, but as a whole unfolding dynamic and developmental process, which is like a story” (Mowe 2017, p. 48-50). Swimme and Tucker boldly set out to “create a new genre of a fusion of science and humanities”:

“We’re not looking at science as just facts or numbers or equations or graphs, but science in relation to the humanities – literature, history, art, music, philosophy, and religion and so on. These are the disciplines that have tried to understand how humans have lived in the past and how might we live more integrally in the future. So Journey of the Universe is a conscious fusion of fact, metaphor, and meaning.”

Swimme and Tucker (2011, p. 15) first examine the origins of the physical universe, including the Big Bang and the creation of galaxies and solar systems. Patterns among physical entities, both immensely small and infinitesimally small, show emergent qualities that are reminiscent of the hero’s journey — birth, expansion, calamity, contraction, and then repetition of the cycle. The authors argue that the universe’s “overall journey depends, in critical moments, upon the transformations taking place in the microcosm.” These transformations, moreover, show the same tendencies toward integrated wholeness that every hero shows on the classic journey: “To commune may be one of the deepest tendencies in the universe.” (p. 51).

The Universe is drawn toward learning, growing, and truth-seeking, with the ultimate truth pointing toward wholeness: “The ancient process of evolution can be understood as a higher-level form of ‘learning’” (p. 60). For example, the entire process of adaptation and memory in animal life is responsible for the ability to turn breath into energy and to transform food into flesh. “Life adapts. Life remembers. Life learns” (p. 61).

This inherent drive to learn is the key toward achieving wholeness and communion. According to Swimme and Tucker, “Humans have at their disposal vast storehouses of learning accumulated and refined over millennia in written and oral traditions. There is little validity to the idea that humans are isolated individuals, for each of us arises out of an ocean of experience and understanding acquired by our species as a whole.” (italics added, p. 90).

The pervasive rhythmic cycle of nature, especially that of expansion and contraction, ensures that death and life form an intelligent whole. Swimme and Tucker (2011) review many recurring patterns of growth and development in the physical universe that map onto patterns found in humanity. The authors pose a number of questions: Does deep geological and cosmological time offer us useful insights into human meaning and purpose? How can the rhythms of the physical world inform us of our own human destiny? “Can it be that our small self dies into the large self of the universe? Are our passions and dreams, as well as our anguish and loss, woven into the fabric of the universe itself?” (Swimme & Tucker 2011, p. 69).

These ideas are reminiscent of the ancient Greek notion of sympatheia, which refers to the phenomenon of all beings on earth and in the heavens as inextricably linked together to form parts of a whole. Sages over several millennia have sensed the centrality of sympatheia in the cosmos, and Swimme and Tucker (2011) invoke Zhang Zai’s Western Inscription from the 11th century as one telling example:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companion.

This conceptualization of the universe is consistent with some physicists’ argument that the physical universe operates like a neural network, a Matrix-like computer system that operates similar to a human brain.

Swimme and Tucker (2011, p. 109) suggest that the human journey is a product of deep time, originating with the Big Bang and marked for eternity. “We can begin to reflect on the way in which time, in a cosmological sense, is the creativity of the universe itself… We live not in any mechanical time but in this enveloping cosmological time. We live in that time when Earth itself begins its adventure of conscious self-awareness.”

Swimmer and Tucker (2011, p. 112) further suggest that our purpose may be “to drink so deeply of the powers of the universe that we become the human form of the universe.” Human beings may be answering a call to “become not just nation-state people, but universe people…. knowing how we belong and where we belong so that we enhance the flourishing of the Earth community” (p. 113). Swimme and Tucker then make the leap from the universality of the journey to human well-being. First, the authors emphasize the centrality of storytelling in mapping out the realities of the physical universe as well as the human world. “We have discovered the ongoing story of the universe, a story that we tell, but a story that is also telling us” (p. 114).

According to the Swimme and Tucker, the Earth has given rise “to the possibility of an empathetic being who could flow into and become one with the intimate feelings of any being. Our human destiny is to become the heart of the universe that embraces the whole of the Earth community… That is the direction of our becoming more fully human” (p. 115). From this perspective, the connection to well-being is a logical one: “Our human role is to deepen our consciousness in resonance with the dynamics of the fourteen-billion-year creative event in which we find ourselves…. Our role is to provide the hands and hearts that will enable the universe’s energies to come forth in a new order of well-being” (p. 117).

All heroes begin their journey missing an important inner quality that they must either recover or discover during their heroic quest (Allison & Smith 2015). Swimme and Tucker (2011) propose that creativity may be humanity’s missing inner quality. Their analysis implies that life on our planet has always been on a hero’s journey and that it has relied on extraordinary creativity for survival and well-being:

“We find ourselves inside an amazing drama filled with danger and risk but also stunning creativity. Two billion years ago, when the [Earth’s] atmosphere became so filled with oxygen, all of life was deteriorating. The only way for the life of that time to survive was to burrow deep into the mud at the bottom of the oceans. The future of Earth seemed bleak. And yet, in the midst of that crisis a new kind of cell emerged, one that was not destroyed by oxygen, but was in fact energized by it. Because of this miracle of creativity, life exploded with an exuberance never seen before…. It is the nature of the universe to more forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces.”

The idea that creativity is essential for heroic transformation is consistent with the metaphor of heroic imagination put forth by Franco, Blau, and Zimbardo (2011). At the human level, heroic imagination “can be seen as mind-set, a collection of attitudes about helping others in need, beginning with caring for others in compassionate ways, but also moving toward a willingness to sacrifice or take risks on behalf of others or in defense of a moral cause” (p. 111). From this metaphorical perspective, unleashing the heroic imagination involves igniting people’s drive to create the best life for themselves and others.

Such heroic imagination implies creativity borne of non-dual thinking (Rohr 2009) and transdisciplinary thinking (Efthimiou 2017a, 2017b; Efthimiou & Allison 2017). Swimme and Tucker (2011) have extended this metaphor of imagination to include the idea that it is embedded in the universe. As products of the universe, the human race has a built-in predisposition toward fulfilling its heroic personal imperative to imagine and create heroic growth for each individual, for all of humanity, and for the planet and cosmos in which we live.

Leading scientists are coming to embrace this direction of the universe. Celebrated physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson once observed: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, moreover, has said: “We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.”  The journey we’re all on is the universal journey.


Allison, Scott T., and Greg Smith. 2015. Reel Heroes and Villains. Richmond: Agile Writer.

Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Efthimiou, Olivia. 2017a. “Heroic ecologies: embodied heroic leadership and sustainable futures”. Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, 4, 489-511.

Efthimiou, Olivia. 2017b. “The Hero Organism: Advancing the Embodiment of Heroism Thesis in the 21st Century”. In Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership, edited by Scott T. Allison et al. New York: Routledge.

Efthimiou, O., & Allison, S. T. 2017. Heroism science: Frameworks for an emerging field. Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

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

Franco, Zeno E., Kathy Blau, and Philip G. Zimbardo, 2011. “Heroism: A Conceptual Analysis and Differentiation between Heroic Action and Altruism”. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Rohr, Richard, 2009. The Naked Now: Learning to See What the Mystics See. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Swimme, Brian T., & Tucker, Mary E. 2011. Journey of the Universe. New Haven: Yale.