Heroism Is Situational
Can you imagine leaping across your seats to thwart a terrorist attack on your flight, Christmas Day? We all wish we had the seed of heroism in us, but fear that we wouldn’t take the leap. Think again.
Philip Zimbardo, a professor at Stanford University famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment, talks about the belief that “good people can easily be induced to do bad things if their environment subtly pushes them in that direction.”
America has an individualistic culture with pre-conceived notions about heroes. Zimbardo asserts, “We want to believe that evil is in special kinds of bad people and heroism is in special kinds of good people. We want to believe that heroes must be more religious or more empathetic or more altruistic than the rest of us. We want to believe that heroism comes from a set of personal virtues. But the social context is more important. To be a hero, what you mostly need is opportunity.”
When opportunity calls
Around four years ago, a few of my girlfriends and I started to see one of our friends begin to slip away. With her family far away, we were her home and part of her family. She was unhappy, depressed and using alcohol or drugs to numb the pain. There were moments of fear and uncertainty, but once we knew we had tried everything else, we had to seek professional help.
We could potentially forsee her anger, but not her irrationality and reaction to our decision. In holding her, listening to her yell and thrash and feeling a sense of relief mixed with betrayal as we took steps with professionals, we also found a piece of heroism rise up in each of us the night we made that decision.
The thing is, you rise to the challenge. I had no other choice. Your mind and heart go through a moment of conflict, your heart skips a beat, but then you jump right in. There’s even an element of surprise. I was calm and collected, moving effortlessly and saying the right things admist the yelling and crying. There was no room for cowards and I still look at my girlfriends as heroes from that long, cold night.
Opportunity Begets Heroism
When discussing opportunity, research shows that “blacks are eight times more likely than whites to have engaged in a heroic act in their life. The reason is simply [that] they have more opportunities. If you live in an urban area, you’re more likely to do something heroic, because there’s more crime. There’s more danger. Whereas if you live in the suburbs, the chance to become a hero is nil.”
However, just because suburbia might have a lower crime rate, it doesn’t dismiss the opportunity such as saving a child from running out in front of a car or putting out a fire in your house. I also think that generalizing race (although mentioned in this study) has less to do with the systematic social context of opportunity creates rising heroes.
We shouldn’t underestimate ourselves and pigeonhole heroism only to lifelong, powerful figures, but rather to those that can also quietly step into a situation they thought they couldn’t handle and they end up handling it, just right.
What do you think? Do situations create heroic acts or is there an innate sense of heroism residing within only certain people? Do you remember a time where you had a choice and without thinking, you jumped in, to do the right thing for that person, place, idea, or situation?