Is There a Difference Between Heroic Imagination and Delusion?

Photo by Yazeed

Yesterday I spotlighted Roger Griffin’s theory that mass shooters—like the one at Isla Vista last week—delude themselves into believing they’re heroes.

That leaves some uncomfortable questions for those of us who believe in heroism.

According to hero researchers, cultivating a “heroic imagination” is a good thing. People who can imagine themselves in a heroic role, and who picture themselves helping others in an emergency, are more likely to do so in real life. This is so central to the psychology of heroism that Dr. Philip Zimbardo has built his entire heroism program around it. If you can get people to think of themselves as heroes, they’ll start to act like heroes.

That doesn’t seem to sit well next to the diagnosis that Griffin gives the Isla Vista shooter, Elliot Rodger. Rodger felt lonely and powerless and came up with fantasies of how he could teach the world a lesson. In one dramatic act, he hoped to both prove how powerful he was and serve “justice” to all womankind. It’s like a twisted version of of a Hollywood underdog tale, and Rodger was sure he was the hero.

So is this a case of the heroic imagination gone awry? Does envisioning yourself as a hero lead to rash and violent acts?

I don’t think there’s any reason to believe it does. I’m going to suggest that the positive “heroic imagination” and Rodger’s delusion of heroism—let’s call it a “hero fantasy”—may both touch on hero myth in their own ways, but they represent two very different psychological forces.

I’m not saying Griffin is wrong. From Rodger’s manifesto, the delusions of heroism are clear. He believed he stood for something and that his revenge served a greater purpose. That is disturbing in the extreme, and it’s a perversion of heroism.

But I think there’s a real difference between that and someone who envisions themselves standing up for others, then goes on to create positive change. It’s not just two different outcomes from the same fantasy, as if heroic imagination were a coin toss. A healthy heroic imagination has a completely different framework.

Opposite Instincts

Let’s start by looking at how heroic imagination and hero fantasy each work. Even on paper they don’t look much alike.

When we talk about heroic imagination, we can mean several things. We may mean watching a hero movie and picturing yourself as the main character. We may mean taking that experience and contemplating how it templates onto your real life—do you have what it takes to act the way your heroes act? Or we may mean reacting to news stories about disasters by thinking through what you would do if you were there.

The key to all forms of the heroic imagination is that, on some level, you are are challenging yourself to rise up to difficult events around you. The heroic imagination is a way to fit yourself into a messy, challenging world.

But a deluded individual with a hero fantasy tries to make the world fit them. The whole framework is reversed. Elliot Rodger wanted to be a ladies man and be respected for it. When women rejected him, he didn’t engage in any serious reflection on how he could be a better man. Instead he imagined a world where everyone knew just what a real man he is.

These two approaches have different outcomes. Heroic imagination is a process of introspection, of seeking to improve oneself in response to challenges. That leads to being better equipped for future challenges. It’s a mental preparation of how you’d handle stress, danger or crisis. Thus, it creates someone who is more aware of their own abilities and the needs of those around them. That’s someone you want around in an emergency.

But hero fantasy has the opposite effect. It makes the individual less and less equipped for navigating the real world. They can’t deal with challenges realistically because every time something is hard it’s unfair and they demand the world change for them. But the world doesn’t work that way. So at best you have an individual who’s doomed to a difficult and unhappy life, and in some cases you get an Elliot Rodger who attempts dramatic, desperate action—and fails at even that.

The chilling coda of hero fantasy is that the great, dramatic action doesn’t even work. It’s as ineffective as everything else the deluded person has done, because it’s still based on an unrealistic understanding of the world. Elliot Rodger succeeded at his plan, but he will never be with a woman again. No one respects him as a true man; no one thinks we underestimated him; at best we pity him. And he didn’t even send the strong message to womankind that he hoped to send. In fact, his spree caused a rallying of feminists against his very worldview.

So Elliot Rodger didn’t get what he wanted. And people who suffer from a deluded hero fantasy never will, because delusions make poor foundations for creating change.

Tellingly, fanatics go out and try to create a heroic encounter. But people with heroic imagination—who are actually better equipped if there is such an encounter—don’t seek out those dramatic moments.

That’s the fundamental difference between heroic imagination, which produces capable, stable individuals, and a hero fantasy that creates killers. One is reflective and the other is narcissistic.

But that’s all inside the person’s head. How can we tell the difference? When someone pictures themselves as a hero, how do we know if they’re healthy or dangerous?

Look For the Signs

I believe an individual with a heroic imagination comes across very differently from someone with delusions. The difference is going to be pretty clear in their behavior and the way they talk about themselves.

One of the first things I learned about heroism is that there is no nice, tidy victory like in the movies. It would be nice if, for example, completing my Journey would inspire millions of people to head off on soul-seeking journeys of their own. But that’s not the way the world works. What I can hope for is that a small number of people might join me here and there, while a few others go on journeys of their own, and still others read my work and embark on other kinds of projects, that don’t involve a journey at all.

Someone with a heroic imagination may start off with grand plans but they learn to accept the limits of the real world. That doesn’t mean they give up, it just means they accept that it takes a lot of continuous, long term, hard work to make even a small lasting change.

A hero fantasy doesn’t accept these limits. Elliot Rodger believed that his one act could have world-changing repercussions. One spree in one city would send a message heard round the world. He didn’t see a need for years of hard work, messaging and campaigning to spread his (awful) message. He was fed up and chose to act, and oddly he thought that one act would be a big success.

This same delusion also means hero fanatics tend to work alone. People with a healthy heroic imagination reach out to others and try to build cooperation. Let’s say you have strongly held convictions about the environment (which I do). Heroic imagination leads you to try to prepare for and react to the many challenges involved in cleaning up the earth. You realize quickly that you’ll make a lot more progress with a coalition or group and you can see that others are already doing good work and might make good allies. Thus the heroic imagination leads you to form organizations and to talk openly and clearly about your goals with others. As a bonus, since your goals aren’t based on delusions, people tend to agree with you and it’s not painfully hard to get allies.

Someone with a hero fantasy cannot get allies, or not more than a handful of extremists. That’s because none of the above applies to them. They have an inflated sense of their own importance and they believe, wrongly, that a single dramatic act can make a lasting change. If a fanatic like this has strongly held environmental views, they might bomb a power plant but they’re unlikely to have the patience—or the social skills—to sit through meetings, find common ground and make compromises. Again, their goals and beliefs are based on a fantasy, not reality, and their own sense of importance is exaggerated; they cannot respond meaningfully to the needs or concerns of others. So even if they saw the value in compromise it’s unlikely they could offer a good one.

Thus, the two different internalizations of heroic myth result in two very different portraits: one of a realist who puts in hard work and considers themselves a small part of a bigger shift, and the other of a narcissist who can’t work with others even toward a common goal.

Worst Case Example

A final striking difference between the two approaches is the downside of each. Both heroic imagination and hero fantasy can go wrong, but they go wrong in amazingly different ways.

The biggest risk of heroic imagination—and I warn against this a lot—is when it becomes a pat on the back to reassure us we’re already heroic. In “hero” programs based on Joseph Campbell and in any public discourse about heroism, you start to get people saying we’re all heroes. Teachers are heroes for teaching, doctors are heroes for doing their jobs, moms and dads are heroes for raising their kids. When we take heroic imagination too far, it stops encouraging us to reach for a higher ideal and make changes. Instead it starts to reassure us that we’re doing plenty already, and no change is needed. When heroic imagination goes wrong the outcome is confident mediocrity.

But when hero fantasy goes wrong it turns deadly. It’s the idea that one person can solve the world’s problems by imposing their will on others. Like an action movie hero, there is no problem that enough bullets can’t solve. The fanatic gets so focused on their perceived role as a crusader, a rebel, or a savior (and above all as a victim) that they lose sight of the moral context in which their frustration takes place. The lives of other people don’t matter as long as they get to make a point.

So a proper, healthy heroic imagination and a narcissistic hero fantasy can both go wrong. But the worst outcome of heroic imagination is settling for average. That’s frustrating, because ideally heroism would inspire us to be or do more, not just hand out attaboys. But it doesn’t kill anyone.

On a final note, I want to point out that I haven’t focused on violence versus nonviolence. So often when we talk about heroism we discuss kids stopping bullying or bystanders saving a life in a subway. Those are peaceful examples. But a healthy heroic imagination is not necessarily strictly nonviolent: there may be times when doing the right thing really does require taking up arms, like in a struggle for independence. But the heroic imagination, as a force for realistic action, also reminds us that violence is far more likely to fail than to succeed. And that a lone individual imposing their will on others is never heroic.

There are many of us today who still believe in heroism, and we want to learn how to live up to the heroic ideal. The good news for all of us is that our heroic imagination is a positive thing. But some people, committing horrible acts, will appeal to the same hero myths and ideals that we do. That’s why I think it’s crucial to recognize delusion for what it is—and most importantly, never tolerate those who pretend it’s heroism.

Individuals who have high ideals but dramatic, unrealistic plans are not heroes. Ideals only matter when you live them, really.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

Heroism, Spotlight

Heroes, Mental Illness, & Fake Heroes at Isla Vista

Last week there was another horrific mass shooting in my home country of the United States. I didn’t get a lot of details at first, partly because I’m out of the country and don’t get US news—but partly because my Twitter feed had less actual news and more rallying cries like this:

I don’t believe that all criminals are mentally ill, and the vast majority of people coping with mental illness are certainly not criminals. But something about this sentiment seemed off.

Ari Kohen did a great job of summing up why, making three points:

  1. People with mental illness shouldn’t be stereotyped as criminals;
  2. We should be careful using the word “crazy” for everything we find weird or different;
  3. Nonetheless, we must not ignore the fact that this shooter was clearly mentally ill.

In other words, it doesn’t help anyone if we pretend that psychopaths are healthy balanced folks. But Ari sort of made an assumption: he’s saying someone who unloads bullets on lots of people “must” be mentally ill. Is that assumption really fair?

According to Roger Griffin, one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism, it’s a totally fair assumption. In fact, Griffin believes that mass shooters aren’t just mentally ill, they have their own unique mental illness.

The Dark Side of Heroism

Griffin says that such shooters typically have a sense of impotence, powerlessness or aimlessness tied to loneliness and isolation. To fill that sense of purpose and reclaim a sense of power they construct violent fantasies in which they are the hero, and in which they can make things right with a single dramatic act. They then grossly overestimate their own ability to change the world. They believe completely that one violent act—their mission—will have world-changing repercussions. Thus they are not only violent, they are also deluded into seeing themselves as heroes.

(Note that in different circumstances imagining yourself as a hero can be a positive force for change.)

In the case of Elliot Rodger, who committed the recent mass-killing at Isla Vista, every one of these boxes is checked. He fits this diagnosis to a T.

When defenders of the mentally ill (a cause I respect and agree with) took to Twitter after the shooting, I imagine they didn’t have many details yet. They probably didn’t realize that Rodger had written a lengthy manifesto portraying his murder spree as an act of justice. They weren’t aware of his megalomania, or how firmly he believed this one bloody act would set everything right in the world. And they almost certainly didn’t realize that he viewed himself as the hero in a cosmic battle of good against evil.

Because if they had known any of that, I hope they wouldn’t have told us the shooter wasn’t mentally ill. A better message may have been, “Most people who struggle with mental illness are peaceful and friendly,” or even, “If he’d had the treatment he needed, this might never have happened.” Both of those fit neatly into 140 characters.

But there’s no doubt Elliot Rodger suffered from delusions—delusions that didn’t just lead him to stab or shoot 20 people, but to believe that doing so was a great act of service.

This is the dark side of heroism. This is how heroic fantasy becomes a track to live out personal desires at the expense of others. Which is exactly why I insist on a litmus test for any heroic act: it has to not only meet the basic definition of heroism, but it can never be an act of forced dominion. If you are imposing your own will on others then, no matter how noble your cause (in reality or in your delusions), you can never be a hero.

I highly recommend reading the full interview with Roger Griffin at War is Boring.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

Heroism, Spotlight

Crazy Cameron Hamilton Knows a Thing or Two about Heroes

Mayor Cameron Hamilton

Yesterday my friend Ari Kohen spotlighted a California mayor with a terrible message about bullying.

Mayor Cameron Hamilton apparently announced that schoolkids suffering from bullies ought to “grow a pair” and just handle the matter themselves. That’s obviously not a popular approach these days (it’s also an ineffectual approach) so the Mayor took nationwide flak over it, and agreed to sit down for an interview (video here).

And he actually reveals some very interesting views.

In the video, the mayor sticks to his guns that children basically need to handle bullying themselves. He believes anti-bullying programs are unnecessary, which I strongly disagree with. But what’s interesting to me is his reasoning. The mayor offers three concerns:

  1. Kids are not encouraged to handle bullying on their own.
  2. Kids don’t know how to defend themselves physically if need be.
  3. We aren’t teaching kids to look out for each other and speak out when they see bullying.

Some of these actually have merit, and I’ll discuss them below. But his overarching logic is (I quote), “It’s up to you [the kid] and your friends to put a stop to this.” That is a deeply flawed idea.

Even as an adult it isn’t “up to you” alone to resolve violence or threats against you; we have a complex legal system to make sure grownups can get their assailants removed from society, or receive compensation for the damages against them, or both. And for kids we never take an “it’s up to you” approach. It isn’t up to a kid to do their homework without a parent or teacher’s help, and it isn’t up to kids to drive themselves to the hospital if they’re sick. The whole point of caring for kids is helping them do things they don’t know how to do so they can learn to do them right.

That certainly includes dealing with bullies, threats and confrontation, which is why we have anti-bullying policies. And the new policies that feature bully education and safe zones, which Hamilton disapproves of, were developed precisely because the old “don’t let ‘em get you down” approach routinely failed.

So I disagree with Hamilton’s antiquated beliefs about rugged anti-bullying individualism. But in his backwardness, I also think he made some good points.

I think it would be great if more kids were trained in self defense. I was bullied heavily as a kid and learning martial arts helped significantly. That’s not because I went on a rampage and kicked all the bullies’ asses, it’s because martial arts is a powerful way to build confidence in kids. There was probably no activity in my entire childhood that had as much of an impact on my growth as martial arts did. Aside from getting into better physical shape, I felt more comfortable with myself and more able to speak up for myself when someone bullied me. I never actually had to use my training to defend myself physically, because my new positive attitude defrayed most situations and eventually stopped the bullying altogether.

Martial arts may not be right for every kid, but learning to defend yourself does have an effect of making you stronger as a person. I think offering self-defense classes would actually be a great component to a school anti-bullying program. Cameron Hamilton might be able to get behind that.

But the thing that really caught my attention was Hamilton’s third point, that bullying ends when one kid will stand up for another kid they see being bullied. This stood out at me because what he’s talking about is heroism. The most basic act of heroism is when a bystander refuses to stay silent, and takes a stand against something they believe is wrong. Overcoming this “bystander effect” of wanting to keep your head down is central to current hero research… and the anti-bullying programs based on it.

So Hamilton is (rightly) asking kids to be heroes. If they’re willing to do that, they really will end bullying in their schools faster than any safe zone, counseling program or demerit system. The problem is that being heroic goes against our instincts. When we see someone abusing someone else, we have a desperate urge not to get involved. Being the first one to step forward and say something is terrifying.

So you can’t just tell kids, “make sure to stand up for each other.” That advice doesn’t work. It’s like saying, “don’t eat sugar.” The only way to get kids to bravely stand up for each other—a tactic that really does work—is to to teach them how to do that confidently and safely.

And teaching that to kids is the centerpiece of today’s best anti-bullying programs, like the Hero Construction Company run by Matt Langdon. Principals have reported not only a total reversal in bullying after Matt’s program, but also better performance in other areas and students wanting to start school programs and volunteer projects. The bullying stops because kids now have the ability to watch out for each other, just like crazy Cameron Hamilton wants.

But that result doesn’t just happen on its own. Kids don’t just pull up their bootstraps. They learn this behavior through anti-bullying programs like the Hero Construction Company, which is exactly the sort of bully education that Hamilton thinks he really hates.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

Heroism, Spotlight

CNN Heroes: Not Heroes

Reblogged from Running Chicken:

Writing in the University of Mary Washington student newspaper, Sarah Grammar identifies the problem with “CNN Heroes”

CNN finds everyday people in communities all over the world who are reaching out to increase the quality of life for those around them. These people devote their lives to others and for many excellent reasons. The 2013 top CNN hero of the year, Chad Pregracke, dedicated his life to cleaning up the Mississippi River when he realized no one else was bothering to do it.

He first started pulling up tires, washing machines and other discarded items out of the river fifteen years ago and has since then gained about 70,000 volunteers. Is this really Heroism though? Cleaning up a mess no one should have made in the first place? Sure it is a great thing for us and for the environment, but should it be considered heroic?

It certainly takes a lot of effort to do the volunteer work that Pregracke did. But it’s not heroism.

Pregracke did not go against his family, or tradition to accomplish his goals; no one stood in his way.

One would say a hero is someone who overcomes obstacles, sometimes dangerous ones. What obstacles were in his way that could not be easily solved? What dangers did he face?
Unquestionably, we should all do more to help other people and our communities; most of us really don’t do much at all. And perhaps that’s what CNN is trying to inspire with its awards show: Put some feel-good stories on television and encourage viewers to do likewise.

But using “hero” to label any positive action that takes some effort or that not everyone is doing is a mistake; it downplays what it really means to do something heroic and, at the same, it also might be setting these “heroes” apart from the rest of us by putting them on a pedestal that we might think is out of our reach.

Running Chicken is the heroism-and-politics science of professor/human rights thinker Ari Kohen. It’s the only blog I read daily. You can check it out for yourself.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.