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What qualifies a person as a hero

  1. Some simply stand by and watch while others rush in.
  2. Bravery is usually the biggest trait of a hero.
  3. And it gets worse.

But what if we all possess the capacity to rise to the occasion when disaster strikes, to save a fellow soul from dying, to work selflessly on behalf of the poor and downtrodden?

The Surprising Science of Selflessness. After thinking about the topic for so long, what is your definition of a hero now? The best thing I can come up with is that heroism is doing something where you're really taking risks to help somebody else, and you're not expecting to gain from that risk to yourself.

  • Virachai and his team are heroes for now;
  • It makes us feel purposeful, and I think purpose is a huge source of life satisfaction for people;
  • Skeletons in his closet were gradually revealed, and as I matured, I began to realize there were people more worth looking up to;
  • He thanked all Thais for their support;
  • A lot of the research is focused more on generosity and giving than on doing heroic deeds, per se;
  • Blackbeard is a hero to the romantic dreamer trapped at his desk.

It doesn't have to be as narrow as giving up your life for someone else on the battlefield or saving someone from a burning house—as long as you are putting yourself on the line in some way, in my book, that qualifies as heroism.

And what your book is basically saying is that we can all train to be heroes, right? Phil Zimbardo, a psychologist in San Francisco [best known for leading the famous Stanford prison experiment that showed a human tendency toward evil, and is now taught in most courses on psychology and ethics], believes that its important to talk about psychological pitfalls that our brains fall into—like the bystander effect.

The more people there are standing around watching an incident, the less likely it is that any one of them will intervene. Did you find that humans are biologically hardwired for heroism? A lot of the research is focused more on generosity and giving than on doing heroic deeds, per se.

What defines a true hero?

Economist Bill Harbaugh at the University of Oregon did a really cool study about what happens in people's brains when they made the decision to give to charity. He was surprised to find that when people make these decisions, a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens was very active. That's an area of the brain associated with processing pleasure and rewards. What he took from this is that when you give of yourself to help someone else, it feels really good.

Special Report: What makes a Hero?

That's something hopefully in the future we'll be able to capitalize on—maybe we can train people to like it even more. Many of these brain studies seem to show over and over again that when you choose to donate to a charity you like, the brain will light up like how you feel if you won a video game or got on a roller coaster or had some other pleasurable experience. If you think about it, it makes sense: It makes us feel purposeful, and I think purpose is a huge source of life satisfaction for people.

So the adopt-a-starving child campaign actually does work? Some marketers have sensed this from the beginning, that people respond to faces and people respond to individual stories. But in more recent years, a psychologist named Paul Slovic has been demonstrating experimentally that we are much more likely to give to a single starving child than a large group of starving children, and even less to a group of two children that just one.

This is an effect that shows up very early as we go up the number scale. And it gets worse. If we read in a newspaper that 10,000 were killed in a massacre in some country we never heard of, we are probably going to tune that right out. Even if we know intellectually that 10,000 is a lot of people, our brains are what qualifies a person as a hero good at processing what 10,000 deaths are going to mean. Are those who have suffered themselves in life more likely to act heroically than others?

There’s a Hero Inside of Everyone, and We’re Not Saying That to Make You Feel Good

The researcher who has done a lot of this investigation is Ervin Staub. He did a study where he found people who had gone through specific bouts of suffering, some had suffered violent assaults, others had gone through natural disasters, and so on. Once they had gone through that, if they heard about Asian tsunami victims, for instance, they were more likely to say that they intended to donate to them.

He thinks there is something about knowing how tough certain circumstances can be if they happen to have gone through similar circumstances. Is it bad to feel good about doing good?

So how do we go about teaching people to be heroes? There are a number of different approaches you can take. When I spent time with the Real Life Superheroes in New York City [a network of crime-fighters called the New York Initiative], I really saw how well they support each other in doing generous things together, bringing clothes to the homeless or walking dogs at the animal shelter.

They would do this as a group or in teams. Like if you have a buddy who helps you jog every morning, getting involved with friends in these altruistic ventures can inspire you to follow through. It also helps to think about what you have in common with other people. There was an interesting study presented at a compassionate science conference last year about an experiment where people were tapping their hands in time with someone else.

When a person was assigned to complete a long task, the other person was more likely to help the person who had been tapping in time with them than helping someone what qualifies a person as a hero had not. That can motivate us to step forward. Zimbardo advocates for everyday heroism, or taking small opportunities to help people around you.

That can be as basic as buying somebody a Big Mac who looks like they need a meal or sticking up for a colleague at work. Things like that are pretty low-key, but they are also what scientists call very pro-social. When you do those kinds of acts, you get really comfortable looking for what other people need. If ever you do have a big heroism opportunity come up, you'll be better prepared to respond to the pressure of the moment.

It's like everyday hero training. I want those people to know they are just as valuable as the person who does the big front-page heroic act.