The psychology of hero worship: bowling for decency

It is another rainy day in Gotham City. Where is Batman when you need him?

Back in 1984, songstress Bonnie Tyler belted out that she was in need of a hero. The Footloose movie soundtrack soon followed suit. Since that point, it seems that society and the media have also been searching for a hero and as Ms. Tyler noted our hero has “gotta be fresh from the fight”. Such a sentiment, or rather the title of the song and its lyrics, reflects what literature scholars call an ubi sant which is a phrase that asks where are those who were before us? Who were those heroes of yore that are now so seemingly ubiquitously sought after, yet so hard to find?  Ironically, in Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch 22, the protagonist Yossarian laments the death of his friend Snowden, saying, “Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?”  Why ironically? Well, today the media and the US government are in a tizzy trying to find Edward Snowden–NSA leaker of U.S. surveillance programs.  As I walked from Grand Central down to 25th Street in New York City, I passed headlines that read “Hero or Traitor?”  Such a fine line between being a heroic figure and being utterly despised and condemned. Look at Batman’s latest character arc in film.

You Google the word “hero” and it comes up with about 670,000,000 results. There is a worldwide longing and hunger for the heroes of yesteryear, so much so that we must question whether we even know what a hero is anymore.  A gentleman was able to stop a door from closing on my fingernail. He is a hero, right? Stop the presses.   Hero-seeking is such a part of our collective, modern-day DNA that there even is a new television show called The Hero (http://www.tntdrama.com/series/the-hero/ Everyday we are reminded that there is a thirst for heroes, and consequently many of us dream of being a hero ourselves. Many dream of being that strong, fast and larger than life persona; even if for just a few seconds.   And why not? Besides getting a euphoric boost to one’s self-esteem, there is also the possible Time magazine cover, a Today Show interview segment and some kind of sponsorship depending on the nature of your so-called heroic act.  Look at Charles Ramsey, collectively labeled a hero by the media when he dropped his McDonald’s burger and rushed to kick down the door across the street and help free the three women held hostage for over a decade by Castro.  Mr. Ramsey’s neighborhood McDonald’s has offered him free food for a year.  Have you seen the movie Supersize Me? Is a year of free McDonalds really that great of a gift? And now, Mr. Ramsey has even signed with an entertainment company to become a paid motivational speaker after his television news interviews went viral.  When people commented through various websites on his new gig, most of the comments went like this “He may not be the most eloquent speaker but I wish him the best. I would rather pay him$10,000 for a speech than any Kardashian family member a quarter”.  Hopefully someone will help guide him on money management.”  Obviously, he needs a hero accountant. Can I go to school for that?  Perhaps, collectively, we are so desperately searching for a hero as the alternative appears to be the Kim Kardashians of the world.


I grew up believing I could be a hero. I grew up dreaming of and wanting to be a hero.  I had actual dreams of pulling people to safety. In my dreams I was Indiana Jones. I was out saving the world. There was one recurring dream I had where the United States was under foreign attack and I led a group of revolutionaries underground in a grand escape attempt. I wanted to be a hero. Who doesn’t?  As we speedwalk through New York City with our caramel macchiatos in hand, we are all probably doing a little hero worshipping even if it is heor-worshiping of our imagined self.  Did you see the recent headline out of the state of Maine where a man tried to plot a kidnapping where we would then go in and save the girl?  http://www.foxnews.com/us/2013/05/29/maine-man-tried-to-stage-kidnapping-and-rescue-teenage-girl-according-to/?test=latestnews Almost out of a country western song, he grabbed her and placed her in the back of his pickup truck, duct-tapping her mouth.  He wanted to pretend to find her and get all the accolades for being a hero.  She eventually died in the back of his truck. That hero scenario didn’t quite work out for any of them.  In fact, he decidedly stepped into villainy.  Yet, researchers argue, especially in social psychology that has mined the bystander effect in countless publications and campus laboratory studies, that there is an inner hero waiting to come out depending on the context.  There are things in the environment that can trigger our ability to jump into action.  Some research has shown that by wearing a certain sports team jersey you may get more aid from bystanders.  Is the moral of that story (research) that we should all carry a knapsack of different types of jerseys?  World famous psychologists Zimbardo and Franco argue that there is a myth of the “heroic elect'” –believing that there are special people out there that have heroic qualities.  From what I have seen in the media, workplace and on the streets of New York, I think we have more of a “hero complex”. Many people believe they can be a hero and save the day. It’s the stuff fantasies are made of.

The problem with hero worship, especially in modern times, is twofold: (1) we are bound to be disappointed; and (2) newly anointed heroes are soon forgotten when the next media darling is foisted onto our collective consciousness.  Most updated takes on our comic book superheroes portray them decked out in all their flaws.  As noted by Frank Miller “The noir hero is a knight in blood caked armor. He’s dirty and he does his best to deny the fact that he’s a hero the whole time.”  How dark can Superman go?  Is he supposed to be dark humored and own a tortured soul?  When Bonnie Tyler belted out that she needed a hero she noted that “Racing on the thunder and rising with the heat. It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet.”  Apparently a tortured, dark-humored superman is good for the economy. The new film “Man of Steel” (the most recent update on the superman saga) posted the biggest June opening ever with $113.1 million.  I would love to see a modern movie include the Wonder Twins with their wonder twin superpowers. At this point, would their wish include a machine gun? Furthermore, as noted by Washington Irving many decades ago: “The idol of today pushes the hero of yesterday out of our recollection; and will, in turn, be supplanted by his successor of tomorrow”  The day after the tornados struck Oklahoma in mid-May, headlines read “Heroes After Twister”. I even saw a news interview where day care providers were being labeled as heroes because they waited out the storm and huddled with the kids that were in their care. They huddled together. It is great that the woman shielded the kids. But calling them heroes? What’s your take on that?  Are they heroes because they stayed and did their job and were not selfish? Do we expect people to be selfish and self-serving and just leave others behind in such an instance? This quest for hero anointment seems to indicate that collectively we expect very little of people in general.

CNN has a yearly award show called CNN Heroes where ordinary people, everyday people, are changing the world.  http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cnn.heroes/index.html  I actually know one of the past top ten hero nominees.  So I must be careful how I state this here. While these individuals are doing great things for the community at large, I am not too sure the hero title is the best one to use. How about innovators? Many of them are nominated because they came up with a great idea and found funding to implement it to the benefit of many.  The word hero is just used so loosely and bestowed upon so many.  It does seem we want people everywhere to rise to some occasion or standard that is a bit vague. There is a non-profit organization called the Heroic Imagination Project, that focuses on teaching people to become heroes.  It stresses that one should “stand up, speak out and change the world.”  We have to develop a sense of heroism to do that?  Again, what does it say about our standard of being a human being?

One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being” (May Sarton)

In sports, many get labeled hero; especially if they get the winning field goal with three seconds left in the game. Sports Illustrated magazine, the same magazine that has its swimwear issue that is not really about swimwear,  has an annual issue detailing heroes of past. In one issue, they featured Yogi Berra of baseball fame ( http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1187819/1/index.htm) . Apparently, he is a hero in part because of his oddly worded statements.  As Yogi Berra notes, he understands that his quirky quotes have created a folk hero allure to him allowing him to stay in the public consciousness for over 50 years.

What about the fallen hero?  Take former police officer Mr. DeCoatsworth who had been lauded a hero by both the media and the Obamas. He was invited by Michelle Obama in 2009 to sit next to her during President Obama’s State of the Union address because he took a shotgun blast to the face and, while bleeding heavily, he returned gunfire, and pursued his attacker for several blocks before collapsing and radioing for help. I must say I am not too sure how that is a heroic act. It is definitely a feat of grand will power and perseverance. Heroic?  Fast forward to 2013. He has been arrested and charged with raping and holding two women captive for two days. Wow, what a long fall from grace for this police officer who was lauded as a hero by our Commander in Chief.  Mr. DeCoatsworth is not alone in such a disgraceful fall from hero worship status.  It seems at times, we look to raise people to hero status to then only knock them down. It is akin to bowling for heroes.  F. Scott Fitzgerald noted “show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy”. This constant sense of hero worship points to one great tragedy: our human souls seem to be lacking something. One day all heroes will fall to the ground and then who will we kneel down to?

10 replies »

  1. James Hillman used the words, “heroic,” and “heroic ego” in a most pejorative sense – the sense of an adolescent fantasy of conquest.

    Since the Age of Reason, the west has set out to conquer nature, conquer disease, conquer our baser nature. Now as the ice caps melt and US gun fatalities are on track to surpass annual deaths in car accidents in a couple of years, we have to ask ourselves the Dr. Phil question, “How’s that working for you?”

    If every fool with a hero fantasy were simply able to muster a bit of decency and the courage to do the right thing at the right time, we’d be in a lot better shape.


    • Thanks for sharing. I love that “how’s that working for you?” I heard sarah palin use it in terms of Obama but didn’t know Dr. Phil also uses it. I agree that at the end of the day it is about decency. If only…


  2. I am supposed to be a hero because I am the keeper of the faith, but I have my doubts because silly me, I told everyone that the Gods would return, and now that some very powerful entities have come upon us, I can not certify that they are noble. I’m beginning to think they are evil. Just being powerful is not enough.


  3. Well thought out and phrased post. I especially like where you point out we are calling heroes those who are doing their job or whatever a decent person would/could do. Is the pet owner a hero because they pick up after fido because Joe average doesn’t? Maybe we need to raise our own expectations individually. What if acted, drove and behaved in a more collectively considerate manner? We need less minor league heroes replaced by a higher personal standardstatement of behavior to our neighbors.


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