Research suggests heroes aren't born, they're made

What compells an individual to be upstanding instead of a bystander? It turns out there are a lot of factors.
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June 28, 2017 - 6:45am

As we hear more about terrorist acts across the United States and world, we also often encounter tales of heroism coming out of tragedy. Whether it’s ordinary civilians attempting to intervene or first responders on the scene. In a recent article published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and researcher Ari Kohen and his colleagues examine some of the common traits among those who take heroic action on behalf of others.

NET NEWS: You argue that heroes aren’t born, they’re made. Why?

ARI KOHEN: It's too often the case people think they can't stand up and stand out, do the right thing, be helpful, and that it's something only extraordinary people do. My sense and the sense of my co-authors is this is a learned behavior rather than behavior that you're born with. When we look at stories about people who have assisted others, what we notice over and over again is these are ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. That's the kind of message I think we want to keep emphasizing.

Ari Kohen is Schlesinger Associate Professor of Political Science at UNL. His latest article examines commonalities among heroes. (Courtesy photo)

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NET NEWS: I want to talk a bit about a term in psychology. It’s called the Bystander Effect. And my understanding is that it implies that people are less likely to help if they’re in a situation where there’s a crowd of onlookers also watching an event unfold.

KOHEN: Yes, and the bigger the crowd the less likely it is that any individual person will stand up and take action. So one of the things that we've been most interested in, and one of things we're trying to do with our ongoing research, is to think about ways to break through that Bystander Effect. We're talking about how someone becomes upstanding rather than remaining a bystander.

NET NEWS: And what have you found compels someone to step out of the group and act?

KOHEN: Well, by and large I think what we've seen is there are a lot of things people who take heroic action have in common. They might not be thinking about it quite often. When you ask people, “Why did you do this?” they can't point to anything (specific). A lot of times people will say that it was impulsive behavior, that they didn't consider it. Our argument is they've already done a lot of that background work and so in the sense they're kind of primed for heroic action even without sort of having consciously decided to do this. Some of the things we point to in the article we just published are ways in which people can kind of train themselves. The most obvious things are physical training. Those are the easiest things to point to: People who do take a kind of physical action on behalf of others. Those are people who have got that physical training. It stands to reason you're much more likely to act on behalf of someone else if you know you're likely to be successful. So if you see someone drowning in a pond and you don't know how to swim, you're much more likely to be a bystander than someone who jumps into the pond. Learning how to swim or having lifeguard training changes that. These are great ways to kind of prepare yourself so if you find yourself in such a situation, you’re more likely to be the kind of person who jumps in because you have that particular skill.

NET NEWS: Many of those who do step forward and act just walk away when the situation is resolved, without looking for credit or praise. Some even really try to avoid being called a 'hero'. How come?

KOHEN: I think a lot of the time people have the sense they're doing what they ought to do, right? This is an expectation. It's not something they view as heroic. The people who walk away and do get tracked down later often will say they think anybody would do this. That's fascinating because they're wrong. If you look at the research on bystanders: Most people think they would act, but most people wouldn't. It's unfortunately a very rare thing for people to jump in and act. That's true of the kind of split second decision when you jump in to save a drowning child. It's also true of the more long range thing like the Holocaust rescuer, for example, which requires much more planning and so on.

NET NEWS: You and your colleagues seem to be pointing to creating ways for our society to encourage heroism among individuals. Why is that important? What’s to say it sometimes isn’t better to just mind your own business?

KOHEN: It's a really hard question, but I think it's an important one… When I speak on heroism I always say to people you need a hero when absolutely everything has gone wrong. I'm thinking a lot lately of the attack in Portland that happened not too long ago. Everything goes wrong in that situation but that's when you need people who are willing to stand up. The more people you have who are willing to stand up, the fewer people who are just going to be onlookers or bystanders. The less of an emergency things will be. You'll have more people who are there to be helpers and fewer people who are simply witnesses. I think that's really the kind of the direction we're pointing people. Look, it's unquestionably the case that heroics can be dangerous. One of the principal things as I said at the beginning about heroism is risk or sacrifice. In some cases, you have to be willing to put your life on the line to help somebody else. But the more people we have who take these kinds of steps that we talk about -- building empathy, physical training, a kind of heroic imagination -- the less likely we hope we'll need people to do this sort of thing as we go forward.



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