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The Psychopathology of Extreme Heroism
March 31, 2011 10:17 AM   Subscribe

SciAm takes a look at the fine line between clinical pyschopaths and real-life superheroes. Related: Addicted to Being Good
posted by saulgoodman (46 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
About The Author: Andrea Kuszewski is a Behavior Therapist and Consultant for children on the autism spectrum, residing in Florida; her expertise is in Asperger’s Syndrome, or high-functioning autism. She teaches social skills, communication, and behavior intervention in home and community settings, training both children as well as parents on methods of therapy.
It doesn't say if she has any scientific credentials at all. I think stuff like this:
in which I first discussed the potential genetic link between Sociopaths and Heroes, or X-Altruists. In theory, their genetic make-up is very similar—same basic group of extreme traits in each personality—with a few important exceptions, one being expressed empathy. This notion was hinted at in 1995 by Behavior Geneticist David Thoreson Lykken [1] in his book, The Antisocial Personalities, when he said, "the hero and the psychopath may be twigs on the same genetic branch."
Is mostly nonsense. It's practically like astrology with "genes" replacing "signs".
posted by delmoi at 10:27 AM on March 31, 2011 [9 favorites]


delmoi: There's also some clinical research on the topic, which is alluded to in the main article, here:
And that their personality traits are very similar, with only a few features to distinguish them? Research by Watson, Clark, and Chmielewki from the University of Iowa, “Structures of Personality and Their Relevance to Psychopathology” [pdf], present a convincing argument in which they support the growing push for a trait dimensional scheme in the new DSM-V to replace the current categorical system.
Unfortunately, I was unable to Google up any versions of the Watson paper mentioned here and elsewhere that wasn't behind a pay-wall of some sort.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:32 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of a guy I met once. I think his name was Captain Hammer or something like that.
posted by Silvertree at 10:33 AM on March 31, 2011 [6 favorites]


Hello, Travis Bickle.
posted by elder18 at 10:41 AM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


It doesn't say if she has any scientific credentials at all.

I guess you could always google her.
posted by hermitosis at 10:47 AM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sounds incredibly dubious without a shred of proof for her assertions.

I'm not even sure she got the checklist for Sociopaths correct. She seems to indicate that sociopaths have low or variable self-esteem and generally come from abusive situations. If anything it seems like many sociopaths have an elevated or even delusion sense of self-worth and ego. Indeed satisfying anything other than their own needs and wants is secondary.

I do think that there are people that do tend to shunt emotions during crisis situations and focus exclusively on rational thought or "extreme heroics" but I think that's as much a factor of the ego protecting itself from potential trauma (in effect saving emotional processing for a later date) and/or the rush of adrenaline into the system.

People who like crisis mode often seem to be addicted to the adrenaline and the sense of empowerment related to being the level-headed one that doesn't lose their shit. I'm not sure that is necessarily a branch on the tree of anti-social personality disorder.

in short she's going to have to show her work on this or it just seems like a collection of suppositions about the motivations of heroes that is based on conjecture more than collected evidence or interviews with extreme heroes.
posted by vuron at 10:52 AM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Paul Zak recently made the interesting discovery that supplemental oxytocin makes most people more generous -- except for a small minority of about 2% of the population, who also happen to fit the profile for sociopathy. This is rather more compelling than the argument in TFA and suggests that the phenomenon of sociopathy is not something learned, nor associated with "X-altruism" in any significant way.
posted by localroger at 10:56 AM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


You've got an overdeveloped sense of vengeance.
posted by sourwookie at 11:10 AM on March 31, 2011


their genetic make-up is very similar—same basic group of extreme traits in each personality—with a few important exceptions, one being expressed empathy

Translation: 'Heroes and Sociopaths are very similar except for the part where Heroes aren't Sociopaths.'

Fucking brilliant.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:11 AM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


You've got an overdeveloped sense of vengeance.

You have an underdeveloped sense of Justice! *punches you, jumps in the Batmobile & drives away*
posted by KingEdRa at 11:13 AM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


We'll. That could have been written better.
posted by zennie at 11:20 AM on March 31, 2011


Hasn't this really been the conventional wisdom for years now anyway? I mean, look at films like Unbreakable, or the Batman Dark Knight reboot. Culturally, I'd say we've long embraced the idea that extreme variations on heroism and villainy are really just "flip sides of the same coin" and the like. It's not uncommon for our myths to prominently feature failed heroes as villains (even Milton's take on Lucifer as the greatest of the angels before his rebellion reinforces this idea). That makes it hard for me to tell if all that cultural smoke actually signals the presence of a real fire, or if the present authors are simply looking for and finding confirmation of one of their own unexamined cultural biases.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:25 AM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


I remember when Scientific American printed stuff about science.
posted by doctor_negative at 11:32 AM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


Well, to be fair, doctor_negative this is the SciAm blog.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:40 AM on March 31, 2011


Hasn't this really been the conventional wisdom for years now anyway? I mean, look at films like Unbreakable, or the Batman Dark Knight reboot. Culturally, I'd say we've long embraced the idea that extreme variations on heroism and villainy are really just "flip sides of the same coin" and the like.

Maybe. But that's not what the author is claiming. She's claiming not that there's only a small difference between heroes and villains, but that there's a small difference between heroes and sociopaths.

The former is true almost by definition, because all it takes is a shift in perspective to turn a hero into a villain. Take U.S. Grant for example. Hero to the Union, villain to the Confederacy. And I'm sure the Persians weren't all that thrilled with Alexander. Etc.

But that has nothing whatsoever to do with a comparison between heroism and sociopathy. Heck, even many of the villains in superhero stories aren't actually sociopaths. They're just evil, though perfectly capable of identifying and empathizing with other people. Indeed, many of them are driven to villainy precisely because they empathize with certain people. Sure, there are some like the Joker that probably fit the bill, but Magneto certainly doesn't.

Beyond that, the list the author creates for "X-Altruists" doesn't really fit most of the main superhero characterizations. "Low impulse control"? Keeping one's powers under control is a source of angst for a host of characters from Superman, to Cyclops, to Black Bolt. Wolverine probably fits here, but he's got no problems with empathy. "High novelty-seeking needs"? Most superheroes have a mundane alter ego, and many would much rather live in that persona. "Inability to see past the needs of others and experience/understand their pain"? I mean, Rorschach maybe, but he might actually be a sociopath, so this shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

I think that to the extent the authors have a point, it's far more limited than they'd probably like. Yes, sociopaths and "X-Altruists" have certain things in common, but so do plenty of people that fall into neither category. Furthermore, you have to use a pretty narrow definition of "heroism" to get to that list in the first place, i.e. the kind of people that will ignore personal physical danger to go on insane rescue missions. Still, the fact that they've got a pretty solid moral compass and sense of obligation to others really undermines any connections between them and sociopaths.
posted by valkyryn at 12:09 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Translation: 'Heroes and Sociopaths are very similar except for the part where Heroes aren't Sociopaths.'

That's glib, sure, but I was thinking something very much along these lines when I was watching Iron Man 2. The hero of that story was a multibillionaire arms dealer and dilettante playboy. The villain was somebody with a fantastic motive (the billionaire's father had had his father killed) and, modulo a foreign accent, exactly the sort of smart, poorly-funded, determined underdog you'd expect the real hero to be.

I kept thinking, am I rooting for the right guy here? Is the only difference between a hero and a villain here the fact that the villain makes his own collateral damage, and the hero outsources his so it happens offscreen? If that's all, then yes: in that story at least the difference between superheros and supervillains really is whether or not they can stand to see the human costs and real consequences of their actions up close.
posted by mhoye at 12:14 PM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


You've got an overdeveloped sense of vengeance.

Gianni Franco: There's a limit to revenge, you know.
The Punisher: I guess I just haven't reached mine yet.
posted by quin at 12:22 PM on March 31, 2011


I remember when Scientific American printed stuff about science

I blame New Scientist (or as I like to think of them, "We're Fortean Times BUT WITH LABS & OTHER COOL PROPS!")
posted by KingEdRa at 12:37 PM on March 31, 2011


You've got an overdeveloped sense of vengeance.

But you also score in the 98th percentile for protective instincts.
posted by vidur at 1:02 PM on March 31, 2011


"I remember when Scientific American printed stuff about science"

Seriously.

If anyone wants a copy of the actual research, y'all can MeMail me. for the purposes of academic discission
posted by Blasdelb at 1:09 PM on March 31, 2011


It's an interesting concept for sure, but she doesn't address some potential motives of the hero that are less than altruistic: having the glory of being the hero.
Think of a character like Harry Potter, for example. He fulfills her list of hero criteria: the low impulse control, complete indifference to rules, highly empathetic, acts against self-interest to server the greater good. Now you might also look at him and go: why you? (OK, yeah, turns out he was The One or whatever at the end of things, but...) What in hell makes you think that you can make the difference? Why are you SO unwilling to go to people with greater authority and power for help? Why are you taking all of this on yourself?

Terminal Uniqueness is a term used in recovery circles: the belief that ordinary conditions do not apply to you, that you are the exception to every rule. There is a very, very narcissistic side to being the one who thinks, over and over again, that THEY are the one to make the difference. There are completely selfless acts, to be sure, but to say the person who is the hero- even the scrappy little underdog- isn't getting anything out of it is ignoring a pretty huge aspect.
posted by 8dot3 at 1:11 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Where in the paper does the author mention the science behind calling this link a genetic link? Where does she describe the similar traits as having a defined genetic basis, as opposite, for example, to cultural basis?
posted by francesca too at 1:42 PM on March 31, 2011


Marv: I check the list. Rubber tubing, gas, saw, gloves, cuffs, razor wire, hatchet, Gladys, and my mitts.
posted by benzenedream at 1:45 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]




[Darth Vader] shut down his empathy circuit, his impulsivity and aggressiveness took over, and Darth Vader emerged.


I think we need to introduce some other new syntax into psychology because the words carry connotations that are difficult to shake. "Antisocial" is one, which doesn't mean shy, but even when you know it doesn't mean shy it's still manifests itself inyour menalt image of an "antisocial personality." Is that antisocial guy you picture standing by himself?

Darth Vader does not lack empathy, as evidenced by his relationship to the Emperor. He may not care about people's feelings but that's very different from saying he is not able to empathize. In fact, The Force is predicated on a sense of empathy.

What Kuszewski says is that heroism is due to an increased capacity for empathy, but that's obviously false. Take an extreme case: superheroes. Batman isn't overly empathic, he does it because he was driven by loss. Superman isn't driven by empathy, he just has a rigid sense of right and wrong. What makes these guys superheroes is that they define themselves as "heroes"/crimefighters, etc. A singleminded purpose for his existence. And, importantly, they are allowed to operate outside the law.

Are the Japanese workers who stayed behind heroes? Sure, but that was out of a sense of duty, a philosophy where the greater good was more important than the individual. No empathy there-- just a worldview that was entrenched enough to produce reflexive actions of heroism when the time came.

I am all for heightening our awareness of other people's positions, and integrating a sense of other into our sense of self. But it seems to me that what every "hero" shares is a well defined ego that defines itself by internalized rules, and behaves according to those rules.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 2:04 PM on March 31, 2011


Wow, few MeFi discussions have so bolstered the plausibility of an article for me in the course of panning it.

She seems to indicate that sociopaths have low or variable self-esteem and generally come from abusive situations. If anything it seems like many sociopaths have an elevated or even delusion sense of self-worth and ego.

From TFA: "The outward appearance of toughness and strength in an attempt to hide his frail ego makes the situation worse ... he appears untouchable and bulletproof, while acting selfish and cruel."

Beyond that, the list the author creates for "X-Altruists" doesn't really fit most of the main superhero characterizations.

So the theory is refuted by lack of supporting evidence in comic books?

the fact that they've got a pretty solid moral compass and sense of obligation to others really undermines any connections between them and sociopaths.

Isn't this pretty much exactly the distinction that the article makes between the two?

There is a very, very narcissistic side to being the one who thinks, over and over again, that THEY are the one to make the difference.

This would be a strike against the article if sociopaths were notably non-narcissistic.

I thought this was an interesting theory. What makes this different from sheer navel-gazing, IMO, is that she suggests some treatment strategies that could bolster/disprove the theory and maybe do some good in the process.
posted by bjrubble at 2:16 PM on March 31, 2011


Darth Vader does not lack empathy, as evidenced by his relationship to the Emperor. He may not care about people's feelings but that's very different from saying he is not able to empathize.

What relationship? Ignoring the total lack of actual personality he showed on the screen, I can't imagine an interpretation in which Vader served the Emperor because he cared about him as a person. It seemed more like an attack dog and its abusive master -- you tolerate the leash because you get enough good opportunities to take out your rage when it comes off.

I actually think this theory is the only one I've heard that could really fit Vader. (Not that I would use this example as strong evidence either way.) A sociopath is someone who starts off empathic but lacks the emotional tools to deal with the inevitable pain that results -- it's just the way of the world that people disappoint, and betray, and meet tragedy -- and learns to stop caring. Sounds pretty close to me.

But it seems to me that what every "hero" shares is a well defined ego that defines itself by internalized rules, and behaves according to those rules.

Again, this seems like a statement that could apply to heroes and sociopaths equally. I would suggest that the difference is for whose benefit the rules are developed. The rules of a hero are for the benefit of the broadest swath of humanity, and I think article suggests (and I tend to believe) that as social animals this is the ruleset that tends to develop under optimal conditions. The rules of a sociopath are conditioned by an emotional withdrawal from the world, and as a consequence benefit nobody beyond the individual, and may even go beyond to punish the wider world that caused the sociopath so much pain in the past.
posted by bjrubble at 2:44 PM on March 31, 2011


It's occurred to me that the show Dexter could be read as "If Batman were real-life."

I mean, what is Batman other than a regular guy with some specialized skills who goes around killing bad guys?

(I haven't watched or researched enough to know if that connection is made overt. Just an observation I had halfway through the first season, not long before I stopped watching. Sorry, fans - it's just not the show for me.)
posted by ErikaB at 2:51 PM on March 31, 2011


I remember when Scientific American printed stuff about science.

You missed the part where it's "American".

Next issue: THE MYSTERY OF TIDES REVEALED!
posted by tumid dahlia at 2:55 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tides and werewolves are very similar—same basic forces affect each—with a few important exceptions, such as hair care expenses.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:37 PM on March 31, 2011 [7 favorites]


I honestly don't think that it's a valid argument to dismiss the article because it fails to match the characteristics of comic book superheroes. How about comparing the traits of real-world heroes?.

Oh wait, I forgot this is Metafilter; we don't believe in real-world heroes.
posted by happyroach at 4:15 PM on March 31, 2011


So delighted you contributed your thoughts on this TheLastPsychiatrist.

The Malignant Hero | Angels of Death: The Doctors While nurses tend to be mercy killers, that's been true of few doctors. Some of the more mundane motives include:

Heroism: They find a way to turn a medical case into a dramatic emergency in which they play the lead role. Even if the person dies, they appeared to try as hard as they could to be the rescuer, which wins accolades from colleagues and staff.


I like this article about empathy and the response to experiencing empathy as a way to understand that benevolent empathy is more than the ability to put oneself in another's shoes, it is a compassionate response to that ability. Sociopaths can comprehend being in the other person's shoes but their response is sadistic.

The author of the article linked in the OP: works as a researcher with METODO Social Sciences Institute, the US branch of METODO Transdisciplinary Research Group on Social Sciences, based in Bogotá, Colombia, investigating the neuro-cognitive factors behind human behavior- this includes topic such as creativity, intelligence, illegal behavior, and disorders on the convergent-divergent thinking spectrum of schizophrenia and autism. She has published papers on the neuroscience of creativity, intelligence, and the analysis of illegal behavior and the creative rule-breaking process.

My completely uncredentialled point of view is that sociopaths and pathological narcissists are routinely brainiacs with many skill sets and can be marvelously useful to the planet in all kinds of ways. But they are dangerous to live with if they are one's parent, spouse, boss, co-worker, lover. Sociopaths who at one time may act heroically can and do get out of control, are typically destructive at some point in their life, sometimes on a massive scale, if not closely watched.

Perhaps the dazzling strength of nuclear reactor might be a good example as a metaphor for a hero that has a sociopath flip side. When things are okay it's great but when it's not good it can be lethally devastating.
posted by nickyskye at 4:15 PM on March 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


ErikaB: I think you mean "Dark Avenger"
posted by leotrotsky at 4:30 PM on March 31, 2011


I guess you could always google her.


Hey man, I'm not that kind of girl...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 4:40 PM on March 31, 2011


nickyskye: My all too personal experience with five, count 'em five different bona fide sociopaths over the course of my adult life (finally took the damn magnet out of my pocket) is that they can be marvelously fun people. They are bold and unafraid, and this can make them exciting free thinkers. They can be charming and witty. They can be incredibly good actors because, unlike normal people, when they scrunch up their faces to mimic anger or pity or sadness, it doesn't trigger any distracting real emotions.

The big problem is that even when a sociopath has found a stable way of relating to society, they simply do not have the same degree of self-actualization feedback normal people do which makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning, life worth living, and so forth; so they are driven to extremes in the areas where they can feel, such as sports and dominance, to make up for this lack. And since they also aren't deterred by pain or negative empathy, no matter how close you think you are to such a person you are never more than one moment of boredom away from having a knife handle sticking out of your back.

The difference between such people and normal people has been noted for over two centuries, and the incidence seems consistent, so it seems likely to me that there is an as yet unfound (or maybe found but unexplored, see my upthread comment about oxytocin) biochemical basis for it. It might be genetic or it might be a common random developmental defect. But the common thread is that it makes you incapable of feeling certain normal emotions either at all or at a normal intensity. This does not seem to be a common thread with heroes no matter how you turn the camera or squint through the viewfinder.
posted by localroger at 4:52 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


I had just convinced myself that I really should get more involved with helping out my fellow man when I read that part about Prometheus getting his liver eaten by the eagle for eternity. Fuck that shit, what's on cable tonight?
posted by digsrus at 5:41 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess you could always google her.
What makes you think I didn't?
delmoi: There's also some clinical research on the topic, which is alluded to in the main article, here:
None of that has anything to do with "Genes". Obviously a psychopath could be someone with a serious neurological condition, like schizophrenia, that is caused in part by genetics. But what does schizophrenia have to do with heroism? Except perhaps religious prophets or something like that.

Frankly I find the whole "sociopath" concept B.S especially when extended to normal people (bosses, people in relationships, etc)
As far as I can tell this women doesn't have any actual scientific credentials. Her bio says she was trained in fine arts and graphic design.
Paul Zak recently made the interesting discovery that supplemental oxytocin makes most people more generous -- except for a small minority of about 2% of the population, who also happen to fit the profile for sociopathy.
Which is bullshit. Paul Zak isn't even a psychologist. He's an economist and the study he did had fewer then 100 people, meaning the '2%' must have been a single test subject. The actual published paper didn't include anything about it, it was just a random comment in an article.
posted by delmoi at 6:39 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


delmoi, the account I read spoke of a longitudinal study with far more than 100 subjects. Your bias on this has been made plain several times, and I'm not googling it for you.
posted by localroger at 6:57 PM on March 31, 2011


gak, not longitudinal. It was a few months. But there were a lot more than 100 subjects.
posted by localroger at 7:00 PM on March 31, 2011


and I'm not googling it for you.

Well, it would be difficult. I mean, I found this:
In supporting his thesis that “market behavior is morality embodied”, Professor Zak describes empirical studies on trust and oxytocin, with emphasis on his own work. I will discuss this work, suggesting that some conclusions are too enthusiastic.
But I'm not paying $41 to read it.

Anway, I looked around on google scholar and didn't find anything. A few papers mentioned that Zak had speculated about it, but there didn't appear to be anything conclusively linking oxytocin to anything called 'sociopathy'.

this paper is an interesting study about how oxytocin and how variations in an oxytocin receptor gene relate to autistic spectrum disorders, but no 'sociopathy'.

They do cite this paper about someone with "acquired sociopathy due to ventromedial frontal damage." -- nothing to do with oxytocin.

I don't see any papers by Zak that have anything to do with oxytocin and sociopathy directly.
posted by delmoi at 7:44 PM on March 31, 2011


But the common thread is that it makes you incapable of feeling certain normal emotions either at all or at a normal intensity. This does not seem to be a common thread with heroes no matter how you turn the camera or squint through the viewfinder.

localroger, I enjoyed your comment. My sincere sympathy at your having endured enmeshments with sociopaths. I'm very glad you survived. Yes, I agreed with everything you said about them.

However, your last sentence I disagree with, mostly because I don't think there has ever been a study about heroes as having a personality type, unless they are a mythological warrior like Achilles for example or Galahad. In day to day speech I think the term, hero, usually refers to a person who does one heroic act of self sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds. Or a fireman who goes into the terrifying purgatory of a burning building to save lives and extinguish the flames.

I haven't thought about this much at all and am trying to examine this now, as I write. I do think people with destructive personality disorders might crave the adulation a personal called hero might receive and perhaps that is why a sociopath or pathological narcissist might behave heroically. Maybe also military heroes who have that gung ho obsession with dominance, like Patton or General Macarthur. Or J. Edgar Hoover or Senator MacCarthy? It certainly would seem that many politicians are or have been considered villains and heroes at the same time.
posted by nickyskye at 9:47 PM on March 31, 2011


My problem with the article is that it's a poorly framed argument. We use the term sociopath as an understood concept defined by current psychological standards, and then comp[are them to "heroes" which are not defined other than by their similarity or dissimilarity to sociopaths. That's just not a good place to start. Hero as defined as someone who'll race into a burning building to save a child, is a very different hero than General Patton or Alexander. And is the guy who ran in to save a child but died trying a hero or an idiot? The failed Pattons and Alexanders are not heroes. Also, the attributes of heroes sound much more like stereotypical action hero behavior than real behavior, which I think is what lead to the comic book villain references. So even if the article is backed up by some very good work, as presented, it's not very credible or compelling.
posted by doctor_negative at 11:04 PM on March 31, 2011


That's glib, sure, but I was thinking something very much along these lines when I was watching Iron Man 2. The hero of that story was a multibillionaire arms dealer and dilettante playboy. The villain was somebody with a fantastic motive (the billionaire's father had had his father killed) and, modulo a foreign accent, exactly the sort of smart, poorly-funded, determined underdog you'd expect the real hero to be.

In my self-appointed role as Metafilter cultural grouch #2034, I'd also like to point out that noughties culture seemed to valorize jocks, basically.

Witness: The Incredibles, where a fading jock gets to reclaim the spotlight from the geeky kid; Hostel, where the shy introvert gets killed and the loud-mouth extrovert survives; Gossip Girl, where the outsiders have to become insiders; Twilight (and a lot of Vampire-porn in general) which is all about having a boyfriend who combines the surface features of outsiderdom (pale skin, dark clothes - the stuff that creative outsiders in earlier generations made cool) with the real benefits of insiderdom (super-athleticism, wealth, the Cullens are the most exclusive clique); 300 took as its heroes a bunch of entitled jocks (watch them laugh at Athenian boy-lovers, scorn those they see as beneath them and destroy the treacherous, physically freakish!).

I'm not sure if it was something about having a frat-boy as President for most of that decade, but the noughties were really the revenge of the jock, just dressed up in some geek-chic, or possibly some unholy collapsing into each other of the most dislikeable traits of both (Michael Bay?).

Oh yes: the article. Well, interesting though this is, I think one very good starting point would be not trying to advance arguments about human nature based on examples from crap art.
posted by lucien_reeve at 3:58 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


nickyskye, in interviews and journalism you will encounter two kinds of heroes, premeditated and spontaneous. Premeditated heroes are people who go into situations they know might require heroism, such as becoming firefighters or voluntarily joining the Marines. I would agree that some of the people attracted to those fields might be sociopaths looking to enhance their self actualization by doing things most people will only ever imagine. They know they might be tested but they also know there will be glory if they are tested and succeed.

But spontaneous heroes are a different story; these are the passerby who aren't firemen who rush into a burning building to save the kids, or the guy who recently saw a car go over the edge of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and stopped, jumped off the bridge himself and pulled the lady out of her sinking car. I get the impression these people are driven by empathy; they see something in the world that isn't right and it simply cannot stand. These people cannot be sociopaths, because sociopaths do not feel empathy. They might rush into the burning building but only if there were plenty of witnesses to spread the story. They would not be shy and unassuming about it as so many spontaneous heroes are.
posted by localroger at 5:32 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


But both linked articles cite large groups of people doing something heroic and risky--the firefighters during 9/11 and the Fukushima nuclear workers. Now, it's easy to argue that people with a peculiar genetic make-up choose that kind of risk-taking work, except that you also find group heroism in war, militant strikes, resistance movements and street demonstrations--and those are much more random groups of people. If we're saying that everyone who joins a union or goes to a protest has some gene determining this, the whole genetic explanation seems to be so diluted as to be useless

I will say that on those several occasions where I have taken a major risk to myself to help someone else (mostly in group settings, but not exclusively), it has been almost an out of body experience. My usual, cowardly, risk-averse self is no longer present (and I am super risk averse) ; I see what has to be done and I do it. In some ways it's exhilarating, because the stressy, anxious part of the brain turns off and I am fully in the moment, knowing absolutely what the right thing to do is. That would be what interests me in heroism, because if I were less risk-averse, I would probably seek out those situations.
posted by Frowner at 7:09 AM on April 1, 2011


"I guess you could always google her."

But sadly, delmoi does not have any Google credentials. The tuition was prohibitive.
posted by Eideteker at 9:24 AM on April 1, 2011


two kinds of heroes, premeditated and spontaneous

Good terms, thanks.
posted by nickyskye at 12:38 PM on April 3, 2011


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