How We Can Learn From Our History In Order To Become A More Heroic Generation

by Nikita Coulombe

When we think of a hero, the first image to come to mind is likely to be an athlete, celebrity or some other famous person.

The trouble with this spotlight is that it distorts our perception of courage and leads us to miss the everyday heroes who walk amongst us.

Most heroes really are regular people who do extraordinary things and we seldom hear about them because they aren't public figures and don't command recognition for their deeds. Oftentimes, they'll just say, "It's what anyone else would do" or "I was just doing my job."

Not too long ago, for instance, 105-year-old Sir Nicholas Winton, dubbed the "British Schindler," was publicly distinguished after his incredible story of saving 669 Jewish children during World War II came to light.

He seemed to feel a bit embarrassed by the attention; his daughter quoted him as saying,

"I'm an ordinary person... I understood what was going on in the world, and I acted in an ethical way based on my knowledge and my compassion."

Sir Winton's daughter also mentioned that he believed people couldn't learn anything from history, that they would go on making the same mistakes over and over. Sir Winton might be right, but our chances of not repeating history's blunders might improve if we had a better understanding of why people did what they did.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow, who created the well-known hierarchy of needs, believed that psychologists should study positive mental states, not just unbalanced ones.

Curiously, there still has not been a comprehensive study about heroism, though we can find clues as to why some people do good things and others don't in an infamous psychology experiment by Stanley Milgram.

Back in the days before a set of ethical guidelines for psychology experiments was in place, Milgram conducted his noteworthy "shock" experiment at Yale, which showed how readily people would obey an authority figure. It was 1963 and Milgram had two very dangerous questions: Would people electrocute a stranger if asked to do so? And, could the Holocaust occur in America?

At the time, many people believed that the atrocities the Nazis committed were exclusive to the German population. Milgram's experiment revealed otherwise.

The setup involved an experimenter in a white lab coat who acted as the authority figure, a confederate (actor) pretending to be a volunteer who always had the role of "learner" and a participant who always had the role of "teacher." Participants were told it was an experiment on memory and the experimenter's hypothesis was that people would learn more quickly if a threat of pain was present.

The authority instructed the participants to shock the learner whenever the learner made a mistake on the memory exercise.

The teacher and learner were then put into separate rooms where the teacher could only hear a prerecorded tape of the learner, who first mentioned he had a heart condition, progressively complained about the pain from the shocks and eventually went silent as the voltage increased. Milgram initially recruited healthy, ordinary men aged between 2o and 50 years old from around the country.

All of the experts present predicted that only a small portion of participants would inflict maximum voltage, but in the end, every participant administered at least one shock and 65 percent went all the way to the highest setting of 450 volts!

What most people don't know about Milgram's experiment is that it was repeated with slight variations and in different locations. When conducted at other locations that did not have the same prestige as Yale, obedience went down. Other low-obedience scenarios included authority figures giving contradictory instructions and the learner portraying himself as a masochist, demanding to be shocked.

Perhaps the most interesting variation was when participants witnessed a previous "participant" deviating from the authority's instruction. If a participant witnessed a peer obeying authority, his rate of obedience was 90 percent, but if a participant witnessed someone before him refuse to continue with the experiment, obedience dropped to 10 percent.

The results of these different scenarios should lead us to consider the power of positive deviance.

Just as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of “The Gulag Archipelago,” observed the darker potential of human nature after spending nearly a decade in a Soviet forced labor camp, saying, "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. This line shifts inside us..."

Margaret Mead offered inspiration when she said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has." President Obama reflected this sentiment in an interview where he talked about the heroic actions of Rosa Parks:

Not many of us will have circumstances like Sir Winton's that would allow for such dramatic actions, but we can all do small things, each day, to reach out to others and stand up for our beliefs.

We must not take history lessons for granted, otherwise we could end up unwittingly replicating Milgram's experiment.

Every generation will be remembered for its ripple effect. What will Generation-Y's be?

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