Book review: What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness

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HERO-REVISEI’m kinda over the hero thing.

In contrast to their ancient origins in epic poetry and lofty myths, heroes and heroism today seem to have gotten wrapped up in our cultural view of altruism.

Although the meaning of “hero” is in that delicious group of highly subjective nouns that people love to debate, I tend to think it’s a bad idea to call those who engage in good and generous acts “heroes.”

Adorable child superheroes aside, when we conflate superhero stories with commonplace altruism, it implies that acts of goodness and giving are somehow extraordinary and outside the range of normal behavior.

In Elizabeth Svoboda’s new book What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness, the author tries to get to the bottom of whether or not this is true. Is it normal for humans to be generous? What would possess someone to rush into a burning building to save another person? Why would someone who lives in poverty donate money to a charity?

The book presents an interesting overview of scientific research related to the study of altruism. Moving from evolutionary biology’s conversations about why helping others is beneficial for us as a species, to the economics of helping, into psychology and neuroscience, Svoboda rounds up some truly fascinating findings.

Brain researchers like Jordan Grafman, for example, have traced altruism to surprising parts of our brains:

“While we often tend to think of altruism as a kind of sophisticated moral capacity we use to squelch our urges to dominate others,” Svoboda writes, “new evidence suggests that giving is actually inherently rewarding: The brain churns out a pleasurable response when we engage in it.”

Oxytocin-releasing acts like charitable giving and volunteering seem to translate to improvements in our overall health and well-being. A University of Michigan study found that older adults who reported helping others regularly were 60% less likely to die during the five years of the study than the non-helping control group, for example.

But Svoboda doesn’t just examine the theoretical study of selflessness. She also examines the practice of “heroism” today, speaking extensively with psychologist and Stanford professor emeritus Phil Zimbardo who designed the famed Stanford Prison Experiment. Today Zimbardo studies the practice of goodness and has helped to develop a “heroic education curriculum” to encourage young people to be “everyday heroes.”

By presenting examples of “heroes in training,” like students at the ARISE High School in Oakland which put Zimbardo’s curriculum into practice, Svoboda suggests that anyone can learn to be a hero. Her findings are essentially that we need to: a) be aware of what makes a hero (the science behind it, understanding altruism), and b) try to put everyday heroism into practice.

Svoboda ends the book by asking, “What excuse do any of us have to hold back from fulfilling our heroic destiny?”

While this question is posed to inspire the reader’s imagination, it strikes me as a complicated call to action. Why does heroism have to be a “destiny”—why can’t it just be who we are? Instead of focusing on extreme self-sacrifice, it might be more realistic to focus on small acts. Instead of trying to be heroes, let’s try to be humans.

After reflecting on what makes an individual heroic, I’m really inspired to learn more about how collectives and groups of people work collaboratively to do good in the world. I wonder how we can we better foster teamwork between people and what holds us back from doing this all the time. I hope that authors, social scientists, and Idealists of all kinds keep thinking about these questions as the field of altruism studies continues to develop.

In the end, I feel like it’s time to ditch the capes and capers of conflating goodness and generosity with heroism, but maybe that’s just me.

What about you–do you think it’s useful to call people engaging in social good “heroes”? Why or why not?


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Comments (2)

  1. Prefer to remain anonymous writes:
    February 25, 2014 at 5:54 pm


    I do not know what the science says, but I know how I want to live and be understood. When I do good deed, I do it because I want to do it and that does need to be heroism.

    I’ve been working in international emergency response for about 15 years and I often feel awkward when people say things like “you are doing so much good”, “wow the sacrifice you make” etc. First it belittles people who have been in unfortunate situations and second, it is not a sacrifice. I love my work. I am fortunate to do what I love. Yes at times, it is tough but there is excitement and wonderful experiences that are irreplaceable. Just like any choice one makes. It is not heroism but self-interest and preservation. It is not to say that I do not want to do good in this world, but I left the corporate world at 25 because I did not feel fulfilled not because I wanted to be a hero. It is not heroism that drives me to make perceived “sacrifices”. I love what I do.

    We are trying hard to teach our daughter to acknowledge and understand people and the environment around her, and be respectful and be considerate of them and it. To take responsibility for her actions and to know that inaction is also a choice. I hope that means she will be a respectful and kind person and if in a position of power, not abuse it but to share it. It is not to turn her into a hero but to make her a person who will have a happy, joyous, love-filled life and the strength to persevere and accept, when it is not that way.

  2. Rebecca Olson writes:
    February 26, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    Great points! Thanks for sharing.

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