Personal development: What makes an everyday hero?


Another lesser evil is the act of doing nothing. Examples include when US soldiers in Abu Ghraib stood by whilst inmates were being abused by their colleagues, or when UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica did nothing to prevent the genocide of Bosnian Muslims by the Bosnian Serbs. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” wrote Edmund Burke. This type of wrongdoing tends to be committed by people Zimbardo calls ‘reluctant heroes’ – the silent majority in between the heroes and evil-doers.

What makes a hero? Research identifies the following factors: opportunity (there are more occasions for heroism in the city than in the suburbs), education, being a volunteer, being male (males reported more acts of heroism than females, but it may be because women don’t recognize their heroic actions as such), race (black people were more likely to be heroic than white people, and personal history (survivors of traumatic experiences were more likely to be heroes). Another factor is the ethical litmus test that is engrained in us all. This may result in a sense of duty like that of the British journalist Clare Rewcastle Brown. In July 2015, she broke the story that $700 million belonging to a Malaysian state fund was sitting in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s bank account. She regards herself as a “mere reporter”, who is just doing her job.

Zimbardo believes that heroism can be learned. Furthermore, by normalizing it and focusing on the act, rather than on the person, anyone can do a heroic deed. To strengthen the hero muscle, heroes must be mindful of and critically assess what is happening around them, not fear conflict for standing up for our convictions, trust that those convictions will be recognized by others, and not rationalize or justify inaction.

The most heartening thing to discover about heroes is that they work best in a network, not alone. Churchill understood very well that victory was only possible when the nation was committed to the fight, no matter how small the contribution. 76 years later, the Queen expressed it too: “On our own, we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice, but the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine.”

The recent protests against the Muslim travel ban to the US, the peace ring around the central mosque in Quebec City and the solidarity marches against Brexit surely demonstrate that the reluctant heroes are stirring into action.