In August, bookkeeper Antoinette Tuff persuaded an armed gunman to surrender at a Georgia school. Would you have the same courage under fire? Below, four characteristics common to real-life heroes. 1. They abide by a moral code. Heroes have often sworn allegiance to a system of principles that prize selfless action. (Think firefighters, police officers, or the clergy.) “Professional honor codes, as well as personal codes, remind us of the values we stand for,” says heroism researcher Zeno Franco, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin. In the case of Captain Phillips, “he had internalized that code for captains of vessels.”
Perhaps as a result, many heroes, including Phillips, downplay their selfless deeds. “They say, ‘That’s what I’m supposed to do,’ ” says psychologist Robin Rosenberg, Ph.D., author of Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Care.
2. They’ve been trained to take action. After the Boston Marathon bombings, many bystanders and runners who rushed forward to help were doctors or EMTs. School clerk Antoinette Tuff had been taught how to handle dangerous intruders. And according to a study published in Social Psychology Quarterly, people who help street assault victims are more likely to have had rescue training. Even doing something as simple as learning CPR can help prepare you to act.
3. They’re highly compassionate. Heroes often see strangers as people like themselves instead of “others” with whom they have little in common. How can we change our view? Research by Deborah Small, Ph.D., and Paul Slovic, Ph.D., has shown it’s easy to shut down when we’re bombarded with grim statistics (“800,000 people were killed …”); we’re more apt to step in when we perceive others as individuals. If you want to help with hunger, for instance, get to know people at your local soup kitchen; their struggles will inspire you to serve them.
4. They perform ordinary acts of kindness. In surveys, Stanford emeritus psychologist Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., has found that people who volunteer roughly 60 hours a year are more likely to have carried out heroic acts. Zimbardo believes that when you consistently perform good deeds, focusing on others’ needs begins to feel more natural.
Elizabeth Svoboda is the author of What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness, out this month from Current.