Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Heroes Help Us Elevate Our Own Virtuous Actions

My topic in WKYB this morning.

What are heroes for?

One important role of heroes is as models for us.

Positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt found that when we watch other people do morally uplifting things, we feel elevated - which he reads as the opposite of "ashamed."  Moreover, feeling elevated makes us more likely to want to help others ourselves. When we publicly celebrate real heroes in our midst, it raises the happiness of the whole community.  We share in the good act, and the proportion of those feeling elevated shapes our culture to make good acting habitual.

A study of Carnegie Hero Medal winners - ordinary people who risk their lives to save strangers - found that they were much more likely to just act when they saw another in trouble, rather than carefully weigh pros and cons.  They were empathetic people who were not torn by ambivalence about whether helping others was really wise. These real (not fictional) heroes had a habit of trusting that virtuous action really works in the world - they are not suckers for helping.

Which got me thinking about the current boom in fictional superheroes.  I am not much drawn to superheroes - I am a sociologist because I find real people and real lives fascinating and meaningful.  Still, when hundreds of millions of real people around the world go out of their way to watch and emulate fictional superheroes, that turns the phenomenon back into sociology. Most of the superheroes in movies at the moment are ambivalent about whether they have to be heroes - whether "with great power comes great responsibility."

It was in this mood that I was helped by a review which made clear to me why I really liked the new "Wonder Woman" movie.  Wonder Woman is a hero like the real Carnegie heroes - she knows she has the power to act, and is not ambivalent that her actions are worth doing.

And observing that kind of hero is elevating.