The Miniseries ‘Devs’ Delivers a Delicious Dose of Heroism and Villainy

By Scott T. Allison

Devs is the ideal TV mini-series for people to sink their teeth into, for many reasons: (1) It’s both science and science-fiction; (2) it’s brilliant mix of psychology, philosophy, religion, and technology; (3) it tantalizes us with the mysteries of love, life, death, time, and space; and (4) it features a creepy 200-foot tall statue of a pre-school girl, which ordinarily would be cause for alarm until we realize that the girl symbolizes Devs’ paradox of our choices changing everything – and nothing at all.

I have to give writer Alex Garland tremendous credit for creating a universe, or rather a multiverse, that succeeds on many different levels. There are fabulous characters, specifically Lily and Jamie, whom we care about and who rise to the heroic challenge. Jamie hits the nail on the head in characterizing Lily as someone who doesn’t merely think about boldly taking actions – she takes bold action in situations where 99.9% of humans would not. That approach to life, dear readers, is the central essence of heroism. As her sidekick, Jamie is loyal to the core and uses his gifts to assist Lily on her hero’s journey.

But Devs is much more than a couple of heroes venturing on the mythic journey. It bestows us with an outstanding ensemble cast featuring generationally diverging Amaya coworkers Lyndon and Stewart; a charismatic, psychopathic villain in head-of-security Kenton; a pair of ethically shady billionaire tech giants in Forest and Katie; and a homeless dude named Pete who somehow worms his way into these people’s lives.

I was captivated by Devs from the get-go. We meet Sergei, and we like him. He’s got a lot of heroic potential – he’s young, smart, loving, loyal. His girlfriend Lily has these same qualities and the two appear to have a close relationship. Amaya’s top secret Devs operation is shrouded in mystery. This element of mystery is a vastly underrated aspect of heroism and villainy. What role does mystery play? It inflames our heroic imagination. It especially ignites our imagination for the presence of potential evil.

Shameless plug time – in our last book, The Romance of Heroism, my co-author George Goethals and I discuss how the ways in which human beings resolve mystery can lead to extreme and biased conclusions about heroism, and especially about villainy. Here’s a brief overview of how this can happen.

The Devs unit at Amaya is mysterious and spawns rumor and speculation, even among government oversight committees. Forest’s instructions to Sergei on this first day at Devs are mysterious – he’s told to just look at code and he’ll know what to do, eventually. The mystery and the potential darkness of Amaya is heightened when we witness Sergei lose his lunch in shock after seeing some of the code. Sergei says, “This changes everything” to which Katie replies, “This changes nothing” — an exchange that offer only the slightest of hints about Devs’ true purpose. At this point, I was hooked and pretty much binge-watched all eight episodes of Devs in two days.

Devs features outrageously high production value. The music, in particular, lends a stylish note during key scenes such as Episode 2’s slow-motion fight between Kenton and Anton in the parking garage. Nick Offerman as Forest strikes just the right balance between brilliance and eccentricity, and between good and evil. I also enjoyed Alison Pill’s striking performance. She shows off her range here, portraying a brilliant scientist named Katie whose emotional control contrasts starkly to her portrayal of a similar scientist in Star Trek: Picard. I love that Katie’s intelligence exceeds that of Forest and that she calls the shots at Amaya as much as, and even more than, Forest himself.

Devs is to be commended for having three very strong female lead characters who drive the story forward. The series takes a big chance in casting Sonoya Mizuno as Lily, our primary hero of the story. Mizuno isn’t the most charismatic actor — yet, I’m going out on a limb by saying that she is the perfect person for this part. Let’s face it, Lily is a tech nerd, and I suspect that few tech nerds have the magnetism of a Meryl Streep or a Kate McKinnon. Her low-key approach is matched by that of Jamie, her sidekick and former lover. The inability of these two characters to communicate their thoughts and feelings was sometimes torture for me to watch, but their dialogue was also realistic in a less-is-sometimes-more kind of way.

Most of all, Devs succeeds in a sublimeway at the level of storytelling, weaving together a tapestry of mathematics, the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. I enjoyed witnessing the unfolding success of the Devs’ mission, which begins with the development of brief temporal simulations that can accurately expose both past and future. Soon it becomes more than just an exercise in simulations and evolves into an actual portal into our true past and into what seems to be our exact future. I love how Devs invites us into the philosophical argument about free will versus determinism and gives us data supporting both positions. Mustn’t the true reconciliation of the free will vs. determinism duality reside in its nonduality? Lily’s final actions in the last episode demonstrate the fallibility of taking an all-or-nothing position on this issue.

Episode eight’s Devs/Deus reveal is fabulous, building on the notion that Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and others are self-anointed Messiahs. I should have discerned the connection to Deus coming, as references to the god-like self-images of silicon valley executives are peppered throughout the entire series. But I didn’t see it coming and I credit Alex Garland for giving us enough clues without sledgehammering us.

So we’re left wondering whether we’re all living a “real“ life versus existing as computer simulations of ourselves. And as Stuart says, we could be a simulation existing within countless simulations because the Devs supercomputer exists in every multiverse. And as Forest says, what difference does it make whether our existence is real or a simulation? The laws of the universe work the same either way.

The Devs miniseries is a masterpiece and is a must-see for anyone who enjoys science, science fiction, psychology, philosophy, religion, and ethics. Alex Garland throws a lot of complex, interconnected human issues at us to disentangle. Lily is  pegged as “the chosen one”, the special someone around whom the fate of the entire universe resides, the person whose choices somehow break the prognostic ability of the Devs supermachine, the women whose “death” is visually reminiscent of that of Christ on the cross.

To be fair, Devs isn’t perfect. One could be critical of Pete’s identity as a Russian agent being a little too obvious. We know that Pete isn’t really a homeless man, and so the “big reveal” at the end is hardly a big reveal. A second criticism centers on why Lily and Jamie returned to her apartment after her escape from the mental institution. They had to know that Kenton would likely hunt them down and kill them. Jamie in particular, who was terrorized and tortured earlier by Kenton, should have been extremely reluctant to sit in Lily’s apartment waiting to be Kentonized — unless, of course, Lily and Jamie’s inability to alter their fate is the very point here.

Finally, I’m still not sure why Forest was so adamantly opposed to the multiverse idea. Surely Forest had to know that the multiverse theory, championed correctly by Lyndon, was the surest path toward achieving a reunion with his daughter. Perhaps Forest could not bear any universe or existence in which his daughter dies. The vindication of Lyndon is Forest’s salvation, all made possible by Lily’s “original sin” of disobeying Deus, an act that ultimately leads to Resurrection. None of these pieces fit together perfectly but they blend together just well enough to give us much to ponder.

Overall, our hero Lily traverses the hero’s journey in exemplary fashion. Unaware of her true identity as the key to the resurrection of the universe, she has to undergo enormous suffering to come to an understanding of her central role in everyone’s fate. Her ability to exercise her freedom of choice, at a pivotal time, makes her a hero in the very best sense of the word. She enlists the aid of a sidekick and uses an avalanche of adversity to transform herself into a courageous, resilient, resourceful hero who saves the world.

Here you can check out our full Reel Heroes review of Devs.

10 Examples of Heroism Arising From the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Scott T. Allison

In any tragedy or crisis, you will see many people standing out and stepping up to save lives and make the world a better place. These heroic individuals can range from leaders of nations to ordinary citizens who rise to the occasion to help others in need.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, here are some prominent examples of heroism that we’ve seen:

1. Healthcare worker heroes

The doctors, nurses, and healthcare staff on the frontline are doing a remarkable job of saving lives. Some of these medical personnel are exposing themselves to risk. This is the ultimate criterion of heroism: Self-sacrifice in the service of others.

2. Heroes who respect science

Understanding the science of viral outbreaks is crucial to getting us through this pandemic with as little loss of life as possible. Here are the heroes in this regard:

  • The epidemiologists and medical scientists
  • Those who respect epidemiologists and listen to their advice.
  • Those who respect models of disease spread, social distancing, and quarantine.
  • Those who listen to scientists’ warnings about preparedness for future disease outbreaks.

3. Heroes who bring much-needed supplies and equipment to hospitals

Suppliers, manufacturers, shippers, and drivers — these people are heroically giving us what we need to care for afflicted people.

A striking example of heroism of this type was shown by the New England Patriots football team, who use their team plane to deliver 1.2 million N95 masks to the US from China to help ease shortages. In addition, the Brooklyn Nets basketball team flew in much-needed ventilators and masks to New York.

4. Heroes who support heroes

A man in Detroit decided to use the $900 he’d been saving to buy gasoline for nurses working to save lives. If we can’t save lives personally, the heroic thing to do is to support the people who do risk themselves to save lives.

5 Heroes who lead by example

Good leaders lead by example. Leaders who wear a mask, who abide by same rules as everyone else, set a heroic example for us.

6. Helpers of the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions

People are heroes when they get groceries and supplies for the elderly or for shut-ins. Keeping in contact with quarantined and elderly people over Zoom or phone is also heroic.

7. Whistleblower heroes

The US Navy relieved the Captain Brett Crozier who sounded the alarm about an outbreak of COVID-19 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

Needing help to save his crew, Crozier sent a strongly worded letter to Navy leadership that detailed his concerns about the spread of the virus on the ship. The letter leaked to the media, and Crozier was punished for doing the right thing.

Sailors cheered when Captain Crozier departed his ship, demonstrating that the average person understands heroism when they see it. It is supremely important and even heroic to recognize heroism when we see it.

There is no more courageous hero than a whistleblower.

8. Heroism turned upside-down: Heroes in the service industry

The pandemic means that heroism now available to everyone: food deliverers, truck drivers, grocery clerks, pharmicists — they’re all indispensable right now and they’re heroes. Franco and Zimbardo (2006) were right — everyday people, not the rich and famous, are society’s true heroes.

We’re heroes just by participating in keeping society functioning.

Doing nothing and staying home is heroic because we’re not contributing to the spread of the virus. Heroism is upside-down now, as typically heroes act.  Now inaction can save lives.

9. Heroes who avoid the hoarding bias

Hoarding is a a type of OCD, caused by anxiety and depression. People have panicked and hoarded food, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper.

The solution: relaxation exercises, meditation, online counseling, and developing faith that things will get better.

We’re heroes if we don’t succumb to fear.

10. Heroes who comfort and encourage others

Please do what you can to reach out to offer comfort to people who are frightened and anxious during this quarantine. You can be a hero and save someone’s life just by the smallest of gestures, such as an encouraging text or call.

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COVID-19 Pandemic Turns Heroism Upside-Down

By Scott T. Allison

William James, who authored the first psychology texbook, was taken and moved by the quiet heroism in everyday working people. He noticed “the great fields of heroism lying round about” him. He was mesmerized by small, seemingly inconsequential everyday acts that, in effect, exemplified unsung heroism in everyone.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most people did not share William James’s view of heroism. People usually reserved the label of “hero” for a few elite people, for the best of humanity, the exceptional, the iconic, the super.  We’ve tended to be very selective in our use of the “hero” label — that is, until extraordinary circumstances have wakened us to the reality that all of us have a heroic role to play in society.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one such extraordinary circumstance. Here are two ways that the coronavirus crisis has cast a heroic light on every human being.

1.  Doing nothing, staying at home

Social media memes bound regarding the heroism of staying home and doing nothing to contribute to the spread of the virus. One meme reads, “Ask not what staying home on the couch can do for you, but what staying home on the couch can do for your country.” Another reads, “Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.”

This do-nothing route to heroism turns heroism on its head. Instead of doing something exceptional to become a hero, we can become heroic by simply doing nothing. Rather than risk our lives to save people, we are being heroic sitting on our couches, eating Cheetos, and watching Netflix.

2.  Everyday workers: Cashiers, waste collectors, truck drivers, food deliverers, and more

It turns out that William James was right all along. The people who are most crucial to the functioning of our society are not the rich and the famous, but the everyday people who work hard to bring us food, deliver goods, pick up our trash, and make life possible for us all.

I am not at all minimizing the extraordinary heroism going on right now among our health care workers, toiling in hospitals, tending to the sick, and exposing themselves to great danger. These are traditional heroes who have always deserved heroic status and who are making remarkable sacrifices to keep us healthy and safe. They are heroes with a capital “H.”

But this pandemic has cast a long-overdue spotlight on the hidden heroism of everyday people. Heroes are no longer seen as rare breeds but as pervasive among us all. Heroism, it seems, has been turned upside-down—ordinary people are now making life possible for us in ways that we never before could properly appreciate.

“Upside-down” may not be the best description for this phenomenon. We are all heroes, now, in our own small way, just by sitting at home and thus keeping the virus at bay. We are heroes simply by doing the jobs that once seemed small, but are now keeping us all afloat during this crisis. A pandemic may not turn heroism upside-down per se, but it transforms heroism into something expansive, inclusive, and universal.

I am calling this “inclusive heroism” — heroism that includes us all, because a pandemic makes us all important in keeping society healthy and running, in our own small ways.

Wrote William James:

“And yet there it was before me in the daily lives of the laboring classes. Not in clanging fights and desperate marches only is heroism to be looked for, but on every railway bridge and fire-proof building that is going up today… the demand for courage is incessant; and the supply never fails.”


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

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

James, W. (1899). Talks to teachers on psychology: And to students on some of life’s ideals. New York: Henry Holt & Co

The Heroic Leadership Imperative

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

Our next book describes a new principle that we call the heroic leadership imperative. We show how leaders who fulfill the imperative will inspire followers and initiate social change.


The imperative consists of the leader meeting individual, collective, and transcendent needs of followers. We describe examples of leaders, both good and evil, who have succeeded in meeting all three categories of needs, leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Donald Trump, Martin Luther King, Jr., and cult leaders such as Jim Jones.

Imperative 1. The first level of the leadership imperative focuses on the necessity of leaders meeting the individual needs of followers. Successful leaders ensure the provision of lower-level Maslowian needs in the hierarchy, such as food, water, safety, and security. Heroic leadership also appeals to higher level individual needs involving esteem, compassion, and social unity.

Imperative 2. To fulfill the second level of the leadership imperative, leaders must meet followers’ collective identity needs. Leaders often gain power by exploiting followers’ need for a positive social identity involving race, country, gender, and religion. We review historical case studies involving Hitler, Napoleon, and Donald Trump as examples of leadership exploiting these collective identity needs for exploitative purposes.

Imperative 3. Finally, we show how the third level of the leadership imperative operates, with leaders fulfilling the transcendent needs of followers. Humanity’s most powerful leaders have been able to gain power by making followers feel they are part of something bigger, more mysterious, and packed with cosmological significance. Leaders such Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln were gifted in tapping into followers’ transcendent desires.

Here is an excerpt from the Preface of the book:

“The word imperative has always fascinated us. It suggests that something — some vital course of action — must be undertaken. Where there is an imperative, there is an urgency, a call, a mandate. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines imperative as “an obligatory act or duty.” The idea of a heroic imperative was first described by our friend and colleague Olivia Efthimiou, who argued that our well-being is a “personal and collective heroic imperative” (Efthimiou et al. 2018, p. 15).

“The imperative in this instance refers to the necessity of engaging in heroic practices aimed at promoting our well-being as individuals and as members of our communities. We dare not avoid the hero’s journey that calls us, heals us, and transforms us into our best selves. Nor do we dare sidestep the necessary practices of self-care that fuel the heroic journeys of the larger collectives to which we belong. Efthimiou et al. concluded with an intriguing thought: Perhaps both heroism and well-being are both best “understood as a means to and ends of wholeness” (p. 15). Please keep that word “wholeness” in mind as you read this book.

“In this current volume, we use the term imperative to describe another aspect of heroism, namely, the phenomenon of heroic leadership. It is our contention that any leader who aspires to change the world has the “obligatory duty” to satisfy three types of needs of followers. The first type of follower needs, which we call individual-level needs, refers to the needs of every distinct human being, ranging from basic needs such as food and water to higher-level needs such as esteem, love, and – you guessed it – “wholeness”.

“Whereas Efthimiou and her colleagues focused on everyday laypeople’s heroic well-being as an imperative, we argue in this book that it the imperative of heroic leaders to move and mobilize followers by taking steps to meet a set of very specific needs of followers. Notice that we’re not necessarily saying that it is the imperative of heroic leaders to ensure the well-being of followers. One might think that “meeting needs” and “ensuring well-being” go hand-in-hand, but it turns out that meeting needs and promoting well-being are independent goals.

“Consider Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. During this decade, he moved and mobilized his followers by meeting their important psychological needs of belongingness, individual self-esteem, and national pride. But we would never say that Adolf Hitler was the architect of his country’s well-being. Achieving “wholeness” was hardly the goal of the Third Reich. Wholeness is a state of utmost well-being in which all the parts within an individual or within a society are integrated. Hitler’s Final Solution was the antithesis of wholeness and well-being. The Fuhrer met some key needs of German citizens while actually poisoning their individual and collective well-being.

“From these considerations, it is important to keep in mind that when we speak of leaders who aspire to transform and mobilize followers, we could be referring to a heroic leader such as Martin Luther King, Jr., or villainous leaders such as Jim Jones, Adolf Hitler, or Kim Jong-un. Although the term “heroic leadership” appears in the title of this book, we know that history has taught us that many of history’s most egregious villains have also sought to move followers and change the world.

“And yes, those villainous leaders have the same imperative of meeting the three types of needs of followers if they wish to achieve their evil aims. The title of this book contains the phrase “heroic leadership imperative” because we prefer to focus on the positive application of these three secrets of game-changing leadership. The world desperately needs heroic leaders who answer their call to both meet followers’ needs and promote their well-being. As we will demonstrate in this book, wholeness may be the key. It is a central human need, identified decades ago by Carl Jung (1951) and by humanists such as Abraham Maslow (1954). Wholeness, we argue, may occupy the hub of well-being for individuals and groups, and thus is pivotal to understanding the heroic leadership imperative.” 

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

The Heroic Leadership Imperative can be ordered from Amazon right now by clicking here.


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

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

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Heroic Consciousness: What it is and How to Acquire it

By Scott T. Allison

This blog post is excerpted from:

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


The philosopher Yuval Noah Harari (2018) recently described consciousness as “the greatest mystery in the universe”.

What exactly is heroic consciousness? It is a way of seeing the world, perceiving reality, and making decisions that lead to heroic behavior. Human beings display heroic consciousness by employing the nondualistic strategy of unifying disparate experiences into integrated wholes, by engaging in an enlightened processing of transrational phenomena, and by acquiring the wisdom to know when, how, and whether to act heroically.

Heroic consciousness is to be aware of thoughts, use them judiciously, but not be obsessively driven by them. It is to have an ego but not be a slave to it. It is to know when heroic action is needed and when it is not.

I have identified four telltale signs that an individual has experienced heroic consciousness. The four characteristics of the hero’s consciousness include the tendency to show clarity and effectiveness in: (1) seeing the world from a nondualistic perspective; (2) processing transrational phenomena; (3) exhibiting a unitive consciousness; and (4) demonstrating the wisdom to know when to act heroically and when not to act when action would be harmful.

1. Nondualistic Thinking

A central element of heroic consciousness is the hero’s use of the mental and spiritual approach to life known as nondualistic thinking (Jones, 2019; Loy, 1997; Rohr, 2009). Heroes are adept at both dualistic and nondualistic mental approaches. Heroes first master dualistic thinking, the ability to partition and label the world when necessary, and then they learn to go beyond this binary thinking by seeing a rich, nuanced reality that defies simple mental compartmentalizations.

Cynthia Bourgeault (2013) describes this richer psychological mindset as third force thinking that transcends the rigid mindset of dualities. A third force solution to a problem is “an independent force, coequal with the other two, not a product of the first two as in the classic Hegelian thesis, antithesis, synthesis” (p. 26).

Psychologists have known for a half-century that human cognition is characterized by a need to simplify and categorize stimuli (Fiske & Taylor, 2013). Because our lives include daily encounters with a range of phenomena that defy simple dualistic thinking, it is of crucial importance that we engage in third force approaches that access our deeper intuitions and artistic sensibilities.

Third force solutions to problems are innovative and heroic solutions. In my view, it is crucial that we emphasize third force nondualistic thinking approaches in early education to help promote heroic mindsets in young children.

In contrast to dualistic thinking, nondualistic thinking resists a simple definition. It sees subtleties, exceptions, mystery, and a bigger picture. Nondualistic thinking refers to a broader, dynamic, imaginative, and more mature contemplation of perceived events (Rohr, 2009). A nondualistic approach to understanding reality is open and patient with mystery and ambiguity. Nondualistic thinkers see reality clearly because they do not allow their prior beliefs, expectations, and biases to affect their conscious perception of events and encounters with people.

Abraham Heschel (1955) described it as the ability to let the world come at us rather than us come at the world with preconceived categories that can skew our perceptions. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” wrote Heschel. “Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is therefore a prerequisite for an authentic awareness of that which is” (p. 46-47, italics added).

Rohr (2009) describes nondualistic thinking as “calm, ego-less seeing” and “the ability to keep you heart and mind spaces open long enough to see other hidden material” (p. 33-34). According to Rohr, this type of insight occurs whenever “by some wondrous coincidence, our heart space and mind space, and our body awareness are all simultaneously open and nonresistant” (p. 28).

Asian spiritual philosophies describe nondualistic seeing as the third eye, which is the enlightened ability to see the world with balance, wisdom, and clarity. Heroic protagonists in literature are often compelled to view the world at these deeper levels by traversing the hero’s journey, which involves a descent into a desperately challenging and painful situation. During these darkest of times, heroes realize that their simple dualistic mindsets no longer work for them.

The pre-heroic consciousness must be discarded, allowing heroes to achieve clarity and accumulate life-changing insights about themselves and the world (Allison & Goethals, 2014). We are all called to experience a transformative, expansive, nondualistic consciousness, and we usually get there through great love (Rohr, 2011) or great suffering (Allison & Setterberg, 2016).

But not everyone gets there. Some remain sadly stuck at the level of dualistic consciousness. Dualistic thinkers have a split consciousness that contributes to perpetuating all the damaging “isms” of society – racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and nationalism, to name a few. Split people tend to split people.

If nondualistic thinking reflects a more heroic consciousness than dualistic thinking, how does one adopt a nondualistic approach to the world? I believe there are at least two routes to attaining nondualistic thought. One route consists of Abraham Heschel’s idea of approaching the world with an openness and receptivity to awe, wonder, and gratitude (Burhans, 2016). Heschel called this radical amazement. Our thoughts constrict what we can see, according to Heschel (1955, p. 47): “While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality”.

Research shows that training in mindful meditation can help quell the initial labeling and categorizing process and thus better enable people to see the world as it is rather than as we “think” it is (Jones, 2019). In his book Blink, Malcom Gladwell (2007) argues that spending less time thinking and relying upon one’s immediate intuitions often engenders greater clarity about the world.

This first route to nondualistic thinking requires us to adopt practices that encourage us to approach the world with more wonder, awe, openness, intuition, feeling, and artistic sensibility. Adopting these practices inhibits our predilection for forming quick mental partitions of the world that limit our ability to see the world more broadly, deeply, holistically, heroically, and with more radical amazement.

The second route to nondualistic thinking does not seek to reduce initial mental labeling but instead focuses on correcting for mental labels after they have already been generated. There is some evidence that the tendency to make quick, spontaneous categorizations of the world is wired into us and may therefore be very difficult to avoid (Pendry & Macrae, 1996).

Awareness of this pattern is critical to remedying it. If we find ourselves dividing the world dualistically in our minds, we can become aware of this initial binary thinking and then pause to make the necessary corrections. Engaging in mental adjustments that help us see the world in broader, more unifying terms may indeed be the height of heroic consciousness.

This two-step process of automatic judging and then correcting has been documented as a pervasive human decision-making process (e.g., Gilbert, 1998; Kraft-Todd & Rand, 2017; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). We are all capable of heroic consciousness even if at first, as a result of deeply ingrained habit, we show a dualistic pre-heroic consciousness. The challenge here is ensuring that we make the full correction. Research shows that people tend to make initial, faulty judgments and then fail to sufficiently correct for them (Fiske & Taylor, 2013). The heightened awareness of a heroically conscious individual will not allow this to happen.

There are many historical examples of the heroic use of nondualistic consciousness. John F. Kennedy used nondual thinking in his response to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. A year earlier, Kennedy and his advisors were humiliated by the consequences of their dualistic reaction to the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Learning from this failure, Kennedy patiently considered many possible responses to the missile crisis rather than frame the decision as either going to war versus doing nothing. He settled on a naval military blockade that nicely diffused the crisis and averted a nuclear showdown with the Soviets.

Mahatma Gandhi’s use of nonviolent, passive resistance is another striking example of nondualistic thinking. Rather than frame India’s struggle for independence as either a violent revolution or total submission, Gandhi developed an ingenious strategy of peaceful resistance that became a model for social change worldwide.

Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced this same nondualistic approach during the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. “Nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love” (King, 1958). Through patience, contemplation, and openness, a third-force solution to problems emerges that reflects a higher intelligence and consciousness.

2. Processing of Transrational Phenomena

Encounters with experiences that defy rational, logical analysis are an inescapable part of life. A second major characteristic of the hero’s consciousness is the ability to process and understand these experiences, as they often reflect the most important issues of human existence. These transrational phenomena are mysterious and challenging for most people to fathom, and thus they require a heroic consciousness to unlock their secrets.

Rohr (2009) has identified five transrational phenomena, and I will add two more. Rohr’s five are love, death, suffering, God, and eternity. The two that I am adding are paradox and metaphor (see also Allison & Goethals, 2014; Efthimiou, Bennett, & Allison, 2019). These seven transrational experiences are a ubiquitous part of human life, pervade good hero mythology and storytelling, and are endemic to the classic monomythic hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell (1949).

To illustrate the importance of understanding the seven transrational experiences in storytelling, let us consider the role of each in the classic 1993 film Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie can be summarized as follows: The hero, Phil Connors, is a narcissistic television meteorologist covering the annual Groundhog Day ritual in Pennsylvania. Phil is hateful to everyone and has a crush on his producer, Rita. Soon he discovers that each day is a repetition of the previous day, and no one but him is aware that the day is repeating itself. The movie derives much of its humor and wisdom from how Phil handles his temporal entrapment.

Here’s how the seven transrational phenomena of the hero’s journey come into play:

(1) Eternity: The hero of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors, finds himself stuck in time, repeating the same day over and over again, seemingly for eternity.

(2) Suffering: Phil suffers greatly because he cannot escape the time trap. He suffers also because despite his best efforts he cannot win the heart of Rita, his producer.

(3) God: Although never mentioned as divine per se, some outside authority or supernatural force is responsible for entrapping Phil in the time loop. This mysterious power is also responsible for eventually releasing Phil from the time loop.

(4) Love: Phil is deeply in love with Rita, but it is not until the end of the story that she reciprocates his affections.

(5) Death: Unable to win Rita’s heart or escape the time trap, Phil ends his own life many times and in many ways, only to discover that suicide for him is impossible. Later, he is unable to prevent a homeless man from dying.

(6) Metaphor: The endlessly repeating day is a metaphor for the rut of unhappy living that plagues most of humanity.

(7) Paradox: Phil has to suffer to get well. The harder Phil tries to win Rita’s heart, the less successful he is. The more he focuses on changing himself, the more he changes Rita. By helping others, he helps himself.

When we are young and not far along our hero’s journeys, all seven of these transrational experiences tend to overwhelm our ill-equipped pre-heroic consciousness. We need stories like Groundhog Day to help us awaken to a new, wiser, broader consciousness. Much like Phil Connors, most human beings suffer until and unless they adopt a heroic consciousness that enables them to grasp the transrational world.

Heroic consciousness is available to us once we realize that choosing to remain unconscious leaves us feeling alone, disconnected, frustrated, and miserable. I am not arguing that our pre-heroic rational minds are bad; in fact, pre-heroic consciousness is useful for healthy early life ego development and identity formation. Phil Connors became a successful television meteorologist by relying on his pre-heroic consciousness alone. I am only claiming that pre-heroic consciousness is insufficient for mastering life’s biggest mysteries involving the seven transrational phenomena. These issues require a broader, more enlightened consciousness to understand, and until we understand them, we are doomed to suffer much like Phil Connors.

We need both dualistic and nondualistic approaches to navigate our world successfully. To be the master of both worlds, as Joseph Campbell (1949) phrased it, we must first master dualistic thinking as our friend Phil Connors did in becoming a successful meterologist. This success alone will not bring happiness. To escape the trap of this first world, we must master nondualistic approaches toward understanding and successfully navigating through the mysteries of the transrational world.

3. Unitive Consciousness

“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.” — Albert Einstein (1950)

Heroic consciousness is a nondual, unitive consciousness, exactly like that described in the above quote by Einstein (1950). While recognizing and valuing individual separateness and multiplicity, heroic consciousness sees and seeks unification.

Joseph Campbell (1988) enjoyed telling the story about two Hawaiian police officers who were called to save the life of a man about to jump to his death. As the man began to jump, one officer grabbed onto him and was himself being pulled over the ledge along with the man he was trying to save. The other officer grabbed his partner and was able to bring both men back to safety. Campbell explained the first officer’s self-sacrificial behavior as reflecting “a metaphysical realization which is that you and that other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life” (p. 138).

Heroic consciousness is the awareness of this truth. Campbell (1988) taught us that the classic, mythic initiation journey ends with the hero discovering that “our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life” (p. 138).

Einstein’s metaphor of the mental prison is especially descriptive of pre-heroic consciousness. The pre-hero is trapped in the “delusion” of tribal identity and of separateness from the world. Consistent with the mental prison metaphor, spiritual leaders have referred to our over-reliance on mental life as an “addiction” (Rohr, 2011) and a “parasitic” relationship (Tolle, 2005). Both the perseverance effect and confirmation bias in psychology refer to the troublesome tendency of people to hold onto their beliefs even when those beliefs have been discredited by objective evidence (Fiske & Taylor, 2013).

The stories that we tell ourselves and cling to can hinder the development of our heroic consciousness (Harari, 2018). This is why hero training programs focus on strategies aimed at re-writing our mental scripts to bolster our heroic efficacy (Kohen et al., 2017). The trait of being open to new ways of thinking is considered by psychologists to be a central characteristic of healthy individuals (Hogan et al., 2012).

Heroes escape their mental prisons and experience a transformed consciousness when they engage in the process of self-expansiveness (Friedman, 2017), during which the boundaries between oneself and others are perceived as permeable. Many spiritual geniuses, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, and Richard Rohr, deem unitive consciousness as core to their definition of spiritual maturity.

Buddhist philosopher Hanh (1999) writes that human beings tend to believe that their fellow humans “exist outside us as separate entities, but these objects of our perception are us …. When we hate someone, we also hate ourselves” (p. 81). Rohr (2019) emphasizes that consciousness is the key to understanding the oneness of humanity: “The old joke about the mystic who walks up to the hotdog vendor and says, ‘Make me one with everything,’ misses the point. I am already one with everything. All that is absent is awareness” (p. 1).

In their list of features that distinguish heroes from villains, Allison and Smith (2015) argued that heroes seek to unite the world whereas villains seek to divide it. Unification in perception and in action tends to reduce human suffering, whereas division in perception and in action tends to produce suffering. The hero’s consciousness thus operates in the service of ending human suffering, and the villain’s consciousness (and also at times pre-heroic consciousness) can operate in the service of producing human suffering.

Heroic consciousness is therefore necessary to achieve personal wholeness, collective wholeness, and the future well-being of our planet.

4. Wisdom of Tempered Empowerment

In the 1930s, a theologian and philosopher named Reinhold Niebuhr penned what is today commonly referred to as the serenity prayer (Shapiro, 2014). The prayer is as follows:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

The serenity prayer has enjoyed considerable worldwide recognition as a result of being adopted by nearly every 12-step recovery program. I believe the serenity prayer contains brilliant insight about heroic, behavioral self-regulation.

George Goethals and I have written elsewhere about addiction recovery programs deriving their effectiveness from their use of the hero’s journey as a blueprint for growth and healing (Allison & Goethals, 2014, 2016, 2017). Other scholars and healers have also noted the parallel between heroism and addiction recovery work (Efthimiou et al., 2018; Furey, 2017; Morgan, 2014). The serenity prayer is the centerpiece of recovery programs because addiction is largely a disease of control (Alanon Family Groups, 2008). The prayer works because it helps recovering addicts develop the wisdom to know when to exercise control over their lives and when to admit powerlessness.

Each of the three lines of the serenity prayer reflects the wisdom of heroic consciousness. First, the prayer asks for the serenity to accept people and circumstances that cannot be changed. This is a prayer for acceptance of non-action when action is pointless. It takes a deeper, broader, heroic consciousness to recognize the futility of action in a situation that seems to call for action.

For example, if a chronic alcoholic is repeatedly arrested for disorderly conduct, and their partner repeatedly bails him out of jail, the partner may finally have had enough and decide not to bail out the alcoholic in the future. Not helping someone may at times lead to a better outcome than helping someone. After not being bailed out, the alcoholic sitting in jail may do some much-needed soul-searching that can lead to their own recovery and healing. The partner who fails to help the jailed alcoholic may be more of a hero by doing nothing than by any action they can take. In terms of the serenity prayer, the partner accepts that they cannot change the alcoholic and that they cannot stop the cycle of repeated arrests for disorderly conduct. Passive acceptance and non-action are sometimes the wisest responses and reflect a nondualistic heroic consciousness.

Beggan (2019) would call this heroic non-action an example of meta-heroism. According to Beggan, “The meta-hero acts heroically by not acting heroically, at least in terms of a more narrow definition of heroic action. In this case, the right thing may actually create hardship and moral ambiguity” (p. 13).

Beggan (2019) points out that there is a bias in heroism science toward taking action rather than inaction. His analysis puts the adage that “the opposite of a hero is a bystander” on its head. It seems there are times when heroes are indeed bystanders. But it takes an enlightened consciousness to discern these moments that call for heroic inaction.

The second element of the serenity prayer focuses on praying for the courage to change things that are changeable. After realizing that they are powerless over the alcoholic, the partner may recognize that they do have power over their own choices and attitudes. We can only change ourselves, not others. It takes heroic courage not to help a loved one when helping might be enabling the loved one’s pattern of dysfunctional behavior. Moreover, it takes heroic courage to take charge of one’s own life by confronting the alcoholic about the dysfunctional pattern, setting boundaries with the alcoholic, or perhaps even terminating the relationship with the alcoholic.

In any difficult situation, there are always things one can change and options one can consider, although it may take great courage to try something that is completely different and outside one’s proverbial comfort zone. It requires a heroic consciousness to consider all the things that can be changed with the goal of doing what is best for all concerned. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors could have stayed in bed in his hotel room for all eternity. But instead, he accepted his powerlessness over the time loop and became focused on changing the one thing he could change: himself.

The third and final component of the serenity prayer asks for “the wisdom to know the difference” between those things over which we are powerless and those things over which we do have power. This wisdom lies at the heart of heroic behavioral consciousness, healthy self-regulation, and sage empowerment. I call this the wisdom of tempered empowerment.

Pre-heroes cannot easily distinguish between what they can control and what they cannot, nor are they adept at anticipating the efficacy of their efforts to control others or their environment. As a result, pre-heroes can easily become meddling or enabling individuals who do more harm than good (Beggan, 2019). People with heroic consciousness possess the wisdom of tempered empowerment by recognizing the difference between situations that call for action and situations that call for inaction. The heroically conscious individual has the courage to do great things as well as the courage to avoid the kind of helping behavior that may be harmful, futile, counterproductive, or unnecessary.

This blog post is excerpted from:

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

The Encyclopedia of Heroism and Villainy

Composed and compiled by students at the University of Richmond, The Encyclopedia of Heroism and Villainy represents the first scholarly effort to consolidate our vast and growing understanding of good and evil people, principles, and theories, in one large volume.

The Encyclopedia of Heroism and Villainy consists of three sections on heroism, anti-heroism, and villainy. The Encyclopedia is currently in production and is tentatively scheduled for release in the Spring of 2022.

Here are the opening paragraphs of some sample entries in the Encyclopedia:

Banality of Evil

The Banality of Evil is the theory that under certain conditions and social pressures, ordinary people are capable of performing actions that would otherwise be unthinkable (Franco & Zimbardo, 2006). This principle is most notably demonstrated in the Stanford Prison experiment, conducted by Philip Zimbardo in 1971. Participants assigned the role of guards behaved inhumanely but would not behaved that way in real life. The powerful role of situational forces impelled guard participants to act differently than they otherwise would have. Thus the line between good and evil is permeable (Franco & Zimbardo, 2006)……


Shrek is animated cartoon character, portrayed as a towering, green ogre (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011). Shrek starts out as a grumpy recluse, who lives alone in his swamp. When his swamp is suddenly overtaken by creatures, by orders of Lord Farquaad, Shrek must rescue Princess Fiona from a dragon’s lair in exchange for his swamp back. Shrek leaves his swamp to embark on a journey to the dragon’s lair, with the help of his companion, Donkey. Shrek successfully fends off the dragon and rescues Princess Fiona from the tower. After spending time with Fiona on their journey back to Lord Farquaad, Shrek begins to care for Fiona, revealing his kind, caring demeanor despite his deceivingly scary appearance.

Shrek is a hero for many reasons. Firstly, Shrek engages in heroic transformation by going through the hero’s journey (Allison et al., 2019). Secondly, Shrek goes through the hero’s journey in a new, unknown setting, which is crucial for initiating any kind of heroic transformation or change in the person (Allison et al., 2019). Additionally, Shrek took an enormous risk to his own safety by saving Princess Fiona from the dragon, which is a characteristic of a hero (Rhoda, 2019). Lastly, despite Shrek’s crude appearance, heroism and heroes can take more than one form (Jayawickreme & Di Stefano, 2012)….

The Great Eight Traits of Heroes

“The Great Eight” is a set of traits believed to be found in the majority of heroes. These traits are as follows: smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring (Allison & Goethals, 2011). It is unusual for a hero to have all of these characteristics, but most heroes have the majority of The Great Eight. These traits were identified after researching the preferences of over 100 participants in a study….

Stanford Prison Experiment 

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a social psychology study in which Stanford University students were randomly assigned to the role of either prisoners or guards in a simulated prison environment. The experiment took place in 1971 at Stanford University and was conducted by Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues. The experiment was intended to run for two weeks, but it was terminated after six days. On day two, after the prisoner participants staged a rebellion, the guard participants began inhumanely punishing the prisoners. Prisoners quickly became depressed and traumatized; three participants asked to be released within four days. The guards became merciless and violent, to the point where the study had to be terminated due to the physical risk it posed to the participants (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017). This study demonstrated the idea of the Banality of Evil, which is the theory that…. and biographical examples of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains.