Getting into the mind of a hero

After several days of studying prejudice and the Final Solution, it is a balm to the soul to turn the mind toward heroics and resistance at the German Resistance Memorial Center. Some of the most famous members of the resistance, such as Hans and Sophie Scholl, still end tragedy, but the fact that they did resist revives some belief in humanity; they are viewed as heroes

Very few psychological studies have been conducted on heroes. Psychologists are much more comfortable with explorations into everyday “prosocial behavior” (things you do for someone else, without getting anything in return), and will sometimes extend that discussion into “altruism” (a flashpoint for debate in philosophy and psychology alike). If theorists are correct that heroism is just altruism in the face of extreme risk, then research into the more mundane forms of prosocial behavior can tell us something about heroes. It doesn’t seem likely, though, that these smaller, laboratory-based aren’t going to get at the question everyone would like to answer: Who will become a hero? Who will risk life and limb to save friends on a battlefield, tend to the victims of an air rid in progress, stand up to the dictatorial regime, or shelter the persecuted?

The focus on smaller prosocial acts doesn’t mean that psychologists don’t spend a lot of time thinking about heroism. One of the lead thinkers in this area is Philip Zimbardo, head of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, who has proposed a theory of the banality of heroism: “most people are capable of heroism with the right mindset and under certain conditions that call for heroic action”. Having already seen that most people can become quite cruel when the circumstances are right, he expects – or at least hopes – that they could also become heroes.

In this view, heroism is a perfect storm: The situation calls for a hero, and you can be that hero, if you see what needs to be done, and do it. Predicting who will step up in what situation is another matter altogether. We cannot identify heroes until after they have been heroic, and the mere act of being heroic may have changed them (or, particularly in resisting the Nazis, led to their death). Researchers have tried to see how the personalities of Holocaust rescuers differed from the personality of bystanders. Some 45 years after the end of the war, dozens of rescuers, bystanders, and pre-war immigrants (serving as a control group) completed a battery of personality questionnaires.

Holocaust rescuers outscored bystanders and pre-war immigrants alike in empathy, moral reasoning, social responsibility, independence, risk-taking, and believing that they were in control of their own lives; the bystanders, on the other hand, reported relatively low risk-taking, tolerance, and social responsibility. Using sophisticated statistics, researchers could predict who were rescuers and who were not fairly well based on a combination of their empathy, moral reasoning, sense of social responsibility – and their age, being just a few years older than the other groups.

So when we need to find heroes, should we look empathetic risk-takers with strong moral compasses, and just a few extra years of experience under their belts? Possibly. Or possibly, the act of having rescued Jews changed the rescuers self-image: Faced with a list of questions about their risk-taking behavior, at the ripe age of 70 or so, they might look back and think “I once hid Jews from the Nazis. It was so dangerous; yes, I do take risks quite often”. The bystanders, meanwhile, might feel some guilt over their lack of action decades earlier, and decide that they must not be the kind of person who feels a lot of responsibility to other people.

The authors themselves were skeptical of the age link they found, reporting several anecdotes of teenagers as young as 11 years old serving as rescuers of the Jews, so we are left with only hints of what might possibly lead one person to be a hero when the circumstances call for it. And so we return to the banality of heroism: It could be anyone. Maybe next time it will be you.
Midlarsky E, Fagin Jones S, & Corley RP. (2005). Personality correlates of heroic rescue during the holocaust. Journal of Personality, 73, 907-934 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00333.x


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