There is a Hero in All of Us

Why does the same situation turn one person into a monster and another into a hero? What research has shown us is that not only do ordinary people all have the capacity to become monsters, we also all have the capacity to become heroes.

More after the jump…

The Holocaust. The Great Purge in the Soviet Union. The Bosnian War. Rwanda. Many people reflect on these events and ask how… how can people turn into monsters? Yet even in all the chaos that surrounded those events, there were also heroes that emerged. They helped others who were abused, even if it could have cost them their lives. Anne Frank’s story is one of many famous accounts where people risked everything just to save a human life.

The question about why ordinary human beings begin abusing other humans has been studied for quite some time. Some of the most well known work in this line of research, the Milgram shock experiments and the Stanford prison experiments, provide a dim outlook for mankind. The experiments demonstrated that it is quite easy to make the average person abuse the rights of another human being. If this is true, then events like the Holocaust could happen anywhere.

The idea that the average man has the capacity to quickly begin abusing the rights of others was the subject of the most controversial Twilight Zone episode produced, “He's Alive” (good summary), which first aired in 1963. In the episode, a young man is persuaded by the ghost of Hitler to start a new Nazi movement in his neighborhood.  He actually ends up getting some of his neighbors to join his group. In the end, he kills the only man who ever took care of him. Rod Serling leaves us with a chilling warning about the capacity of mankind to abuse other humans:

“Where will he go next, this phantom <Hitler> from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare – Chicago; Los Angeles; Miami, Florida; Vincennes, Indiana; Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there's hate, where there's prejudice, where there's bigotry. He's alive. He's alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He's alive because through these things we keep him alive.”

So if we all have the capacity to start abusing others rights, what about whether we have the capacity to become heroes as well? The question about when humans become heroes instead of monsters has been less studied. Research by Franco and Zimbardo (2008) provides a more positive outlook for mankind that the Milgram experiments and the Stanford experiments.

For Franco and Zimbardo (2008), heroism is more than altruism; it requires a deep personal sacrifice. Their research suggests that we all have the capacity to act heroic. They argue that there is nothing particularly special about someone who acts heroically; we just have to be in the right situation. For example,

“…during Hurricane Katrina, a young man named Jabar Gibson, who had a history of felony arrests, did something many people in Louisiana considered heroic: He commandeered a bus, loaded it with residents of his poor New Orleans neighborhood, and drove them to safety in Houston. Gibson’s “renegade bus” arrived at a relief site in Houston before any government sanctioned evacuation efforts.”

A famous fictional example of the aforementioned case is the 1992 movie Hero. The main character of the movie, Bernie LaPlante, is a petty thief and a hustler, and a big let down to his family. Yet one night he ends up saving the passengers from a downed airliner even at the risk of his own life. And instead of taking credit for this heroism, he hides from the media and helps a homeless guy claim credit for it.

Another example of unexpected heroism that comes from fiction is the ferry scene (that Mike thoroughly analyzed) from the 2008 Batman movie, The Dark Knight. The Joker <edit> gives a detonator to a ferry full of prisoners and a detonator to a ferry full of civilians. He tells them each if they push the button, the other boat will blow up and they will be saved. Movie watchers probably expected the prisoners to blow up the other ferry. Since these were men who previously committed crimes, they had the capacity to break “society’s” rules about individual rights. Yet, in that particular the situation, a prisoner threw the detonator overboard. He chose to be a hero and pay the cost of his own life rather than let the innocent civilians die on the other ferry.

Yet another fictional example comes from the 2004 movie The Butterfly Effect.  In the movie, the main character Evan is able to continuously changes history so that he can make life better for his friends and family. In the original reality, his one childhood friend, Tommy, becomes a homicidal maniac. But eventually Tommy is placed in a situation where he saves a woman’s life (instead of killing her), and it changes his life. He devotes his life to God.

There are still more questions than answers from the research that has been done dealing with the capacity of mankind to do harm and the capacity of mankind to do good. Why do people who normally respect the rights of others suddenly decide not to, and why do people who do not normally respect the rights of others suddenly decide to be a hero? If you would like to learn more about this research, you can go to Everyday Heroism for information on current research and find information about a survey they are conducting.


Julie VanDusky-Allen

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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