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Are You a Hero or a Coward?

Are you a hero or a coward?
Are you a hero or a coward?

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to reveal the psychology of a hero; what makes a hero? Can we all be heroes?

First a quick update:

“Stress, hormones and the fountain of youth”
Did you know that biologically, we should be able to live to 120 years of age? Read the interview between myself and Dr. Michael Bauerschmidt, Medical Director of Full Potential Health Care revealing the links between stress, hormones and staying young, and; ways you can safely maintain youthful levels of hormones, by clicking this link.

Now, let’s talk about the psychological profile of a hero; what makes a hero? Can we all be heroes?

A retired football player carried a wounded woman from the Boston Marathon finish line. A father who lost both his sons, one in Iraq and one by suicide, rushed to aid the fallen. A veteran turned the shirt off his back into a bandage. A surgeon from Kansas finished the race and then started removing shrapnel from other runners.” – NBC News reporting on the aftermath of two blasts April 15, 2013 that killed three people and wounded at least 176.

The above people were described by NBC News as heroes.

The dictionary defines a hero as a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.

On that day in Boston as referenced above there were numerous, extraordinary examples of the human spirit soaring and triumphing – of humanity rising above evil.

There is also a difference between acts of kindness & help during a time of crisis and acts of heroism. Science has identified that empathetic and altruistic actions are driven by ocxytocin – also known as the mother-love-chemical. However, a hero demonstrates concern for other people in need or defends a moral cause while openly knowing that there is a personal risk. In other words, the hero puts himself in danger to help or rescue others and does so without any expectation of a reward.

Are we all capable of this action; can we all be heroes?

The hero acts contrary to the hard-wired Fight-or-Flight response which is about self-preservation and survival (fighting or fleeing to protect oneself); the hero is willing to give up his own life to save that of another human being.

Philip Zimbardo is one of the world’s most distinguished living psychologists. A professor emeritus at Stanford University, Dr. Zimbardo has spent 50 years teaching and studying psychology and has published more than 50 books and 400 professional and popular articles and chapters, including “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.”

In an interview and conversation Dr. Zimbardo and I recorded in 2008, he told me that he was intrigued by the actions and behaviors of Jehovah’s Witnesses who demonstrated extraordinary heroic acts as one of the only groups during the Holocaust who never informed, never worked with any of Nazis against any of the other prisoners in the concentration camps. “Heroism always involves a conscious choice. You see the evil; ‘Do I give in or do I oppose it?’” (Listen to the interview here ). He also told me that he could not explain what made people act heroically. And so, after more than 40 years of studying evil, Professor Zimbardo launched The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) to learn more about heroism and to create the heroes of tomorrow.

Numerous behaviors such as conformity, obedience, desire for approval, fear of rejection and the Bystander Effect prevent people from acting as heroes.

A person who is afraid of what people think of him will not take action in a time of need; a person who conforms and is blindly obedient will be afraid to question or defy unjust authority; a person who is not clear about his own morality and values will also be resistant to taking action when moral injustices are occurring.

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Read my article about “The Power of No” and the experiments by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and 1970s in which most people obeyed orders to deliver gradual electric shocks and eventually electric shocks of 450 volts to an innocent person in the next room – in spite of the screams of agony from the person receiving the shocks. The participants caved into social pressure, almost resulting in blind obedience and thus going against their own previous moral convictions and conscience.

The Bystander effect is the “diffusion of responsibility” – ‘someone else will do something about this and therefore I don’t need to do anything.’ In fact, numerous studies over decades reveal that “bystanders are less likely to intervene in emergency situations as the size of the group increases.”

Professor Zimbardo’s research has indentified 5 human behaviors/tendencies that prevent people from becoming heroes:

Tendency #1: to react automatically to the things we are not paying close attention to
When we fail to be vigilant, we respond automatically and often in a different way than how we would prefer to respond if we were paying attention.

Tendency #2: to rely on labels and categories in making judgments about ourselves and others
We tend to put things in neat boxes as a means to make sense of and quickly navigate the world around us. However, this leads to rash judgments about others based on the groups we think they belong to and we misinterpret the causes of our feelings and behavior.

For example in one study – an actor dressed up as a homeless man laying on the steps of Liverpool St. Station in London. Multiple people passed by for 20 minutes but did nothing; when the same actor dressed up as a businessman, it took only 6 seconds before people stopped to help. Why? Labels, categories and judgments such as the gentleman’s wellbeing is more important than that of the homeless man. In the same study, an actress dressed casually lays on the same steps, unconscious for 4:55 seconds with people passing by but not stopping.

Tendency #3: to depend on those around us for our own interpretation of what’s going on
This tendency is also connected to the Bystander Effect – waiting for others to lead or tell us what to do. We watch and wait rather than act, and we feel less personally responsible to intervene on behalf of another.

For example in the study referenced above – a woman lay on the ground; as soon as one person began to help, others did the same. But many stood around and watched and did nothing until one person took the lead and took action.

Tendency #4: to seek acceptance and avoid rejection
This paralyzes people. It prevents people from taking action when an obvious injustice is occurring and pushes people to fit in and give into peer pressure, rather than do what is right or speak one’s truth.

Tendency #5: to assume that certain aspects of ourselves and others can’t be changed
Believing that we and things can’t change causes us to give up on ourselves as well as allow injustices.

In the same way that there are behaviors and tendencies that prevent people from becoming heroes, there are also behaviors and other elements that encourage people to act heroically.

Professor Zimbardo and his team surveyed 4,000 Americans exploring heroes and heroic actions. Here is a summary of the findings along with some of my own insights and conclusions.

Heroes surround us: 20 % qualified as heroes: helping another person in a dangerous emergency; whistle blowing on an injustice; sacrificing for a non-relative or stranger; defying an unjust authority.

Opportunity matters:  Most acts of heroism occur in urban areas

Education matters: Education leads to greater awareness of situations

Volunteering matters: 30% of the heroes also had engaged in significant amounts of volunteered, thus indicating greater concern for fellow humans

Gender matters: Males reported performing acts of heroism more than females. Possible explanation – greater opportunities for males, and women may not perceive their life and roles as mothers as heroic

Race matters: Blacks were eight times more likely than whites to qualify as heroes. Possible explanation – greater opportunities and need

Personal history matters: Having survived a disaster or personal trauma makes you three times more likely to be a hero and a volunteer. Possible explanation – when one has experienced great pain it makes him/her more likely to be compassionate towards fellow humans; contrast this with someone who is sheltered and showered with material goods and attention and thus grows up to become narcissistic and entitled.

“Every reasonable man and woman is a potential scoundrel and a potential good citizen. What a man is depends upon his character what’s inside. What he does and what we think of what he does depends upon his circumstances.” – George Bernard Shaw

It is hard to accept that we all have the potential to commit good or evil and most of us would scream out that we would never torture or commit atrocities. The truth is that few people commit evil but even fewer commit heroic acts; the majority of people do nothing and become bystanders. Which one will you be?

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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