Are You a Hero or a Bystander?

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Are you a hero or a bystander? Certain traits suggest one or the other:

People who like to take charge of situations, who respond sympathetically to others, and who have a strong sense of moral and social responsibility are more likely to intervene than people who lack those traits, research shows. Heroes tend by nature to be hopeful, believing events will turn out well. They consciously try to keep fear from hampering their pursuit of goals, and they tend to block out the possibility of injury or material loss.

People who are otherwise good and caring may still shrink back in a crisis. Their responses depend partly on whether they perceive the situation as an emergency and whether they know how to help; someone who doesn’t know anything about electrical wiring probably won’t rush to save a person tangled in a power line. How you’re feeling that day makes a difference, too; “people who are in a good mood are more likely to help,” says Julie M. Hupp, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University in Newark. Context also matters; some researchers say a large crowd makes it less likely that an individual hero will step up.

Of course, it helps to be physically able. In a 1981 study of 32 people who had intervened to help victims of assaults, robberies or other serious crimes, researchers found the heroes were taller, heavier and more likely to have had training in rescuing people or responding to emergencies than a comparison group of people who hadn’t intervened in a crime or emergency for 10 years.

But heroism is far more complex than that. Some heroes have qualities that enable them to blast through obstacles, recent research shows. Empathy, or care or concern for others, runs high in people with heroic tendencies, according to a 2009 study led by Sara Staats, a professor emeritus of psychology at Ohio State University in Newark.

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