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I Wish the World Didn't Need so Many Heroes

by on April 14, 2014 6:05 AM

I wish the world didn't need so many heroes.

In recent days, we've heard stories of people who put themselves at risk to help others.

First, the military police officer who intervened on yet another shooting rampage at Ft. Hood. A soldier, armed with a gun that he reportedly bought off base, began shooting people around him after an alleged altercation with another soldier. The actions of that trained officer, who the media was quick to point out is female, most likely saved the lives of other innocent people. When she raised her gun, the perpetrator raised his as well and took his own life.

Days later, just down Route 22 near Pittsburgh, several high school students, teachers and a very brave administrator stepped forward to help others when a student went on a stabbing rampage in the minutes before school started. Armed with two kitchen knives, a16-year-old boy began randomly stabbing his peers in a crowded school hallway.

Reports of high school students and teachers jumping in front of their friends and students to block the assailant and others applying pressure to wounds and administering first aid likely minimized the injury count. It was reported that one young man not only pulled the fire alarm which resulted in students being quickly directed out of harm's way but also helped the assistant principal who tackled the assailant. Questions about why the young man snapped and what motivated him to harm his classmates remain unanswered.

And then there is the nurse. Last week, a truck driver got out of his truck to check on the child who he had just hit on a street in Detroit. According to witness statements as well as videos taken at the scene, it appeared that the child had either jumped or stepped in front of the truck. That truck driver quickly got out of the truck's cab to offer assistance to the boy and was almost beaten to death by a mob of bystanders.

A woman in the crowd, a nurse, reportedly put her body between the victim and the mob (even laying on top of him as he fell into unconsciousness) announcing that she had a gun. Her actions likely saved his life. The young men involved in the attack are facing attempted homicide charges and at least one of them is being charged with a hate crime. The child is expected to recover from his broken leg. The victim is reportedly attempting to speak after days in a medically-induced coma. The nurse who took such personal risk is being called a hero.

In our work places. In our high schools. In our neighborhoods. What is happening in our culture that is causing the need for so many heroes? Why are people so disengaged? Are we becoming somehow more numb to the feelings of others? Are more people hurting and therefore hurting others or do we just know about it more now?

Regardless of the whys, thankfully, there are still people who are willing or able to step forward on behalf of others.

When we see others at risk or our neighbors in harm's way, why do some of us step forward to offer assistance and yet others stay safely in the background?

Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford, has studied the variables in situations that exemplify both evil and what he calls heroism. Zimbardo is known for the famous Stanford Prison study in which he randomly assigned college student volunteers to be either prisoners or prison guards in a simulated prison set up in the basement of an on-campus building.

The results were so compelling that the study had to be shut down after only six days. Within a very short time, the subjects began to demonstrate behaviors that are stereotypical of both the guards (abusive, disrespectful) and the prisoners (angry, dependent). Based on his work regarding the social effects of groups, pressure to conform and the bystander effect (e.g. the force that keeps us in the safety of the crowd when we see something happening to someone else), Zimbardo has developed the Heroism Imagination Project (HIP).

He believes that people can be taught to be heroic and to use their "hero skills" every day to make a difference.

Zimbardo and other researchers who have looked at heroism have identified several variables and "traits" that they believe make someone more likely to step forward to help. These include confidence, persistence, a generally positive attitude, a strong value system and greater levels of empathy than their non-heroic peers.

According to the research, individuals who have had some kind of formal crisis training -- the nurse in the Detroit trucker incident or the high school administrator -- are more likely to step forward to help others. Dr. Zimbardo and his colleagues have developed a curriculum that they believe helps to train people to put themselves in other people's shoes and to have the skills and confidence to be heroes, even when the risks are great.

I suspect that heroism likely has its roots in both nurture and nature. For some, it might just be personality. For others, it is what they have been taught. We learn it by understanding that others have feelings too and being taught to feel empathy for people who are hurting.

We gain confidence by being reinforced for our efforts and by our mastery of life's challenges. Children who grow up in environments that are positive, founded on a strong moral code and in giving to others, and who understand that "we" is more important than "me" are more likely more apt to step forward.

When others are willing to hide in the crowd, the hero puts him or herself at risk – and often without a motivation for personal gain or recognition – to help his fellow soldier, her fellow student or just another human being.

Perhaps if we taught heroism to more people, we wouldn't have a need for so many heroes.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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