It was one of the most spectacular and talked-about acts of everyday heroism in recent years. In 2007, a man waiting for a subway train suffered a seizure and fell from the platform onto the tracks. Some 75 onlookers froze. One, however, acted. Wesley Autrey handed his two children to a stranger, jumped onto the tracks and attempted to drag the flailing man out of the way of an oncoming train. When it became clear that there wouldn’t be time for this, Autrey positioned the man at the centre of the tracks and lay down on top of him to prevent him from moving. The train passed over them both with less than an inch to spare. Autry later said: “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular. I did what I felt was right.”
Such events fascinate Professor Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect and the eminent psychologist behind the infamous Stanford prison experiment. Conducted 49 years ago, it involved splitting a group of volunteer students into ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ in a mock prison and letting nature take its course, which turned out to be an acquired submissiveness on the part of the prisoners and an acquired brutality on the part of the guards. The experiment had to be abandoned.
“That was a life-changing experience for me,” says Zimbardo. “This experiment showed how easily good people can become those who do evil things. But later it also got me thinking about alternatives. Why didn’t I intervene sooner to stop an experiment that had gone awry? What does it take to do the opposite—to act heroically? Academic ethics no longer allow that kind of experiment [even if entertainer mentalists the likes of Derren Brown have done very similar] but if they did, you could imagine a similar test: say a guard being told to do something terrible to an inmate and then assessing at what stage an individual stands up to point out that a behaviour is wrong? Which viewpoint do the other guards fall behind?”
Instead, Zimbardo has established and launched in some 15 countries his Heroic Imagination Project, a series of classes for high-school and college-aged students effectively aiming to teach them how to be heroes: from the psychological and social challenges to action and critical thinking, which, as Zimbardo puts it, “helps to overcome the fixed mindset that you couldn’t be a hero”.
“The whole programme is anti-personality,” Zimbardo adds. “It’s not playing to the idea that heroes are just born that way. The point is that heroism isn’t mystical. Anyone can be a hero. If you have the awareness of someone in need and the ability to help, you will help. And you only have to help someone once to be a hero. That opportunity doesn’t come along often, maybe once in a lifetime, maybe never, which almost by definition makes heroes exceptional people. But you can be ready for when that moment comes. To be a hero starts in the imagination, with the idea that ‘I could do that’.”
Zimbardo is not alone in being fascinated by the mechanics and morality of heroism. Over the last decade or so, psychological science’s interest in the subject has seen exponential growth. So too in popular culture, with Marvel and DC Comics to thank for that. The proliferation of media means we now see a lot of these real heroic acts recorded and shared too. As well as videos of all the people who could have helped but didn’t.
Established in 1995, the US-based My Hero Project encourages people around the world to use art, film, and writing to share inspiring stories of their heroes, “people who make a difference in the world, be that a great peacemaker or a third grader’s mum, they’re equally valid”, suggests co-founder Jeanne Myers. “The idea of the hero gives us strength because through them we realise our own abilities. You can see the ripples.” Perhaps, she says, complex and confusing times— given current geopolitical uncertainties, the technological pace of change and so on—have us all looking for the certitude of action and intent that the hero figure, from Greek myth to Captain America, seems to embody.
“The idea of the hero is back in the air,” says Wendy Swartz, professor of Chinese literature at Rutgers University, New Jersey, who last autumn created a course on heroism. “People generally think of heroism as a demonstration of selfless, extraordinary bravery, and that’s true. But it’s also the product of cultural and historical traditions: a hero in one account might be a rebel in another, what’s heroic in war isn’t necessarily the case in peacetime. There are also gendered ideas of heroism.”
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