Everyone can be a criminal… or a hero.

Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo contend that, while it is true that anyone could become a criminal given the right circumstances, it is also true that anyone can be a hero. We already know this, because we know that our actions are determined by incentives. These two men have political opinions I totally disagree with, but their point on heroism is worth listening to:

The banality of heroism concept suggests that we are all potential heroes waiting for a moment in life to perform a heroic deed. The decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in time. By conceiving of heroism as a universal attribute of human nature, not as a rare feature of the few “heroic elect,” heroism becomes something that seems in the range of possibilities for every person, perhaps inspiring more of us to answer that call.

Even people who have led less than exemplary lives can be heroic in a particular moment. For example, during Hurricane Katrina, a young man named Jabar Gibson, who had a history of felony arrests, did something many people in Louisiana considered heroic: He commandeered a bus, loaded it with residents of his poor New Orleans neighborhood, and drove them to safety in Houston. Gibson’s “renegade bus” arrived at a relief site in Houston before any government sanctioned evacuation efforts.

The idea of the banality of heroism debunks the myth of the “heroic elect,” a myth that reinforces two basic human tendencies. The first is to ascribe very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special—to see them as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us. The second is the trap of inaction—sometimes known as the “bystander effect.” Research has shown that the bystander effect is often motivated by diffusion of responsibility, when different people witnessing an emergency all assume someone else will help. Like the “good guards,” we fall into the trap of inaction when we assume it’s someone else’s responsibility to act the hero.

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