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Are you a hero? Take the test

Psychologists believe ordinary people can be inspired to acts of heroism if conditions are right.

Image: everyday hero via Shutterstock

MANY HAVE PROCLAIMED Nelson Mandela – to be laid to rest tomorrow – to be a hero. But what are the prerequisites for joining this elite club?

Frank Farley of Temple University in Philadelphia, USA, who has been studying the psychology of heroism for three decades, offers this checklist of qualities:

  • courage and strength
  • compassion, generosity, devoted to the search for justice
  • intelligence, being accomplished at something
  • honesty and integrity
  • well-liked
  • adventurous, enjoys risk-taking
  • ambitious and determined, should never give up.

Some researchers argue that heroism can be learned and that just as evil can lie in banality, that an ordinary person can become the source of extraordinary acts of heroism.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo became well known in the 1970s for the Stanford Prison Experiment which showed that ordinary ‘decent’ people could commit evil or sadistic acts if put in the position to do so without fear of reprisal.

More recently, Zimbardo has argued that the converse can be true in terms of motivating people to acts of heroism. He has created a new project, HeroicImagination.org, to explore the nature and psychology of heroism.

A study published in Psychological Science journal last year researched the ‘flight-or-fight’ response to danger. It found that “having positive social interactions before being exposed to acute stress” encouraged people to behave in “more pro-social behaviour”; a “tend and befriend” situation, said the scientists. In other words, compassion can inspire acts of heroism towards your fellow humans.

Zimbardo defines heroism as:

The active attempt to address injustice or create positive change in the world despite pressures to do otherwise.

It may involve coping effectively in unclear or emergency, situations, helping others in need, or may involve setting and achieving goals to promote the wellbeing of others.

Most notably, he says that heroism is an attribute to anyone who chooses to work towards it:

Habits of wise and effective acts of heroism can be learned, encouraged, modelled and are achievable by anyone at any point in their lives.

Key to encouraging ‘everyday heroism’ appears to be the currently-popular term ‘the psychology of positive change’. In a framework for encouraging this type of change in society – and making it last – Zimbardo lays out a three-point plan to get you started. You can read it here.

Do you know someone in everyday life who has tried to create a positive change in their environment or society on an everyday basis? We’d love to hear in the comments below.

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- Additional reporting by AFP 2013

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