The heroic mindset

Diana Monteiro

“It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to our enemies but just as much to stand up to our friends,” said Dumbledore in the famous Harry Potter books making a young Neville Longbottom a hero amongst his friends. This perfectly defines what real heroism is about. When we think of heroes we often see them as people who are larger than life stars, who put themselves at significant risk to save the world. Most movies certainly promote the notion that in order to be a hero, you have to be outstanding and remarkable. This view is probably true to a certain extent. However, it excludes other forms of heroism. The concept of everyday heroes, ordinary people who appear to do extraordinary acts is another way to think about heroism. Who are the people who are everyday heroes and what does it take to become one?

Who is a hero?
Researchers who study the concept define heroism as “a concern for other people in need – a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward” (Zimbardo, 2011). Further, heroes apparently also have certain common traits like being strong, smart, selfless, resilient, charismatic, caring, inspiring and reliable (Allison & Goethals, 2011). From reading the above definitions, we might not consider ourselves fitting those descriptions. However, it is important to note that everyday behaviour in normal life that make us push ourselves to act out of our usual comfort zone, where we help others in need, when often others may be unwilling to help… this is what heroism is all about. If you ask anyone who has engaged in a heroic act, you often will hear them say that they were behaving like they think others would have under similar circumstances. This suggests that no one thinks actively about doing something heroic, but rather, when the situation arises, the hero acts out of instinct, a desire to be kind and do the right thing. If this is the case, then can we all be heroes? Is it then possible to teach people to be heroes, if the execution of heroic acts isn’t a result of preparation and planning? The answer to both these questions is, yes! We can indeed all be heroes and we can work on behaving heroically when the situation requires. Psychologist Frank Farley suggested that heroism is about risk taking and being generous, adding that compassion, altruism, kindness and empathy are all involved as well. Heroism then, requires that we inculcate these attitudes within ourselves or teach them to our children to ensure future generations of heroes.

Being selfless, resilient, caring, reliable, empathic, compassionate, or altruistic are seen as automatic personality traits that exist without much thought to how they came to develop within an individual. All these and other traits described above can be considered personality based variables that develop over time. These are also good humanness traits that everyone should possess. It is important to note that personality develops over a lifetime and crucial development occurs from infancy to young adulthood. Thus if we can encourage inculcation of these important characteristics from infancy, we can ensure a conducive atmosphere for hero development.

diana As the world changes rapidly, we are seeing an increase in problematic behaviours among adults and children. Often, these can be seen rooted in an individualistic worldview where one’s own needs are always seen as more important than others. In the face of this changing world, as resources lessen and populations increase, our instincts often push us towards self-promotion. Instead, if we can teach upcoming generations what are simply basic good human traits, we can ensure a better world for all. Encouraging children to be stars is what we have done, encouraging them to be heroes might be a better way to help preserve the world for future generations.

How can we build heroes among school children?
What can we as adults do to ensure that children in our care are moulded into becoming heroes? We have to begin by understanding how children learn. They learn by observing, listening, reading, exploring, experimenting, doing and creating to name a few. As adults we are often shocked when we find ourselves behaving in ways that our parents did (given that we swore we would never be like them!). We ended up like them without realizing all the learning that had taken place in growing up around our parents. Assertiveness skills, a warm attitude towards others, openness to new experiences (be it trying different cuisine or befriending people different from oneself), stubbornness, cleanliness, and almost everything else that we do can be usually traced back to our roots and how we observed, listened, and did with our parents and caregivers.

To encourage children to be heroes, we have to expose them to the right material that allows them to learn these basic human skills. Encouraging reading at an early age (even pre-verbally) where a child learns from stories is a great start. A school administrator shared a story of a young pre-primary child who whacked another child hard on the head with a stick. When questioned, the child apparently said – I was waiting to see the bump grow like it does on Tom and Jerry! We know children ape others, especially significant adults in their life. Thus, if adults encourage helping behaviours by being helpful to others, the imprint of helpfulness will be created in their children too. Each time an adult helps another without an expectation of appreciation or a reward and a child is present, the act gets imbibed in the child in a way that no other teaching can do. Thus, adults can start by consistently doing one helpful act each week and making it a habitual behaviour, which ensures that a child learns as well and the world becomes a more helpful place.

When we teach counselling to other trainee psychologists, the hardest things to teach are empathy and non-judgmentalness. These are known to be traits that develop long before adulthood and thus the difficulty in teaching them. However, children are sponges for learning and these traits are well inculcated in them by adults who exhibit the same. We hear parents say, my child is stubborn like his father; this could then be said about empathy. Showing others concern and understanding their pain and life challenges is a great way to ensure a child learns empathy. Encouraging children to talk about their feelings, teach them to cope with distress, talk to them about sympathy and empathy with stories that they see on TV, help them understand what they have in common with others are all ways to encourage empathy and non-judgmentalness.

Encouraging children to take the less popular but right opinion, supporting their lone voice when it’s the right thing to do, encouraging them to speak up when they see something wrong happening, teaching them good morals and values, and always ensuring they think about others and about themselves are wonderful ways to develop good human beings and thus heroes for life.

The author is a Counselling Psychologist and Director, The Hyderabad Academy of Psychology. She can be reached at

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