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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7 thoughts on “Is There a Difference Between Heroic Imagination and Delusion?

  1. I’m glad to see this article, because your previous one got me thinking about what makes Griffen’s attempts to stand up for his “cause” and be a hero and say, for example, the heroism you preach and practice.

    My thoughts, however, seem to have taken me to a different conclusion than yours.

    In my mind (and please do not take offense to this)…there really isn’t a difference. Both you and he set out to be heroes. You however studied what it meant to be a hero first, where as Griffen I am guessing already had an idea of what a hero “is.”

    To me, there are two things that make up a Hero. 1) Action. 2) Perception.

    1) Every hero is a hero based on some deed that they have done, which goes above and beyond what other men do. Jumping on a grenade, making an epic journey to help people, taking up arms to fight tyranny when others simply accept. In this instance Griffen (rightly or wrongly) took Action against a perceived Tyranny that he hoped he could either change, or influence others to change through his action. In this, he did complete the first step of Heroism.

    2) However, more important than the Action is the Perception of said Action. We believe that throwing yourself on a grenade to save people is heroic…but we could easily see it as stupid. I mean, what idiot in their right mind would willingly kill themselves by jumping on a grenade? So in that regard something “Stupid” to one man is Heroic to another.

    If history is written by the victor (or at least whoever controls the media) then heroes and villains are chosen not by actions, but by how those actions are perceived by the “victor” and how they present it. Griffen felt there was a sexual tyranny controlled by women and used against him and other men, and there is some evidence to suggest it. But, since women’s organizations are so powerful, and have such a hand in the media…they have spun this as an attack against all women, motivated only to kill women (completely ignoring the male victims), and are even using it to try and label Men’s Rights groups who are advocating for things like equal custody of children between parents…as terrorist organizations. To the victor go the spoils, and the perception that an action Griffen perceived as heroic…to be instead perceived as villainous and mentally ill.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think he was wrong to do it and the man clearly needed help…but as far as the heroism goes…Perception is more important than action it would seem.

    Well, that’s how it works to me.

    • Lucius, first off, I’m not offended at all and I do appreciate respectful disagreement.

      But I have a hard time responding to this. I’m not sure you’re aware how you come across, and I think it’s important to say something. Your comment reads in many ways as an apology for a mass killer and his motives. You say his views are somewhat justified and you express an openness (“rightly or wrongly”) to his violent, illegal, mentally unbalanced choice of action. Even if you have sympathy to his politics, do you realize how disturbingly that comes across?

      You make some interesting points about the subjectivity of heroism, which in a different context I’d be interested to debate… but in this context it would feel all too much like engaging and treating seriously an apology for criminal action.

      One point I will engage, because I think it’s inaccurate, is the one you also made yesterday in another comment: no one is ignoring the fact that Rodger killed men as well as women. In no way way does that change his misogyny. As you yourself stated, Rodger was fighting against what he saw as a sexual tyranny (?) by women, and he was willing to kill people of either gender if they got in his way in fighting against it. Two of the males that he killed were his own roommates, whom he wanted out of the way so he could use the apartment as a headquarters and “torture” center (his own word) for women.

      Roger had severe delusions that led him to kill or want to kill all sorts of people… in service of his misogynist cause. Enemies of the US routinely shoot our Afghani or Iraqi allies; French resistance members shot French officials they saw as Nazi sympathizers; every violent cause kills a variety of people to advance its mission. But Rodger’s horrible cause was against women, as he explicitly stated, and no amount of male bodies can change that.

      Lastly, note that the shooter’s name was Elliot Rodger. Griffin is a commentator I referred to.

      • Ah, Rodger, sorry about that. It was a long day. Must have missread. :(

        And I know how it sounds. In a lot of ways…it was hard to write. His deeds were monstrous, even by the standards of my people’s ways (or at least they were dishonorable since he went after anyone, rather than those who had wronged him personally). I was coming at it, however, from a morally objectivity (right term?) point of view. To me, the illegality of the action doesn’t make it less heroic (that just me maybe). I’m…not trying to make an apology for him. There really isn’t one. It’s just we’re dealing with a subject that in a lot of ways our language isn’t equipped to really talk about. There are…concepts behind my words which English has no real way of saying.

        We as a people…infuse a “moral” sense to things. I was speaking from a place of…not immorality, but I guess non-morality. Action A is Action A, if you will, it is neither good nor bad, but our percetions make it good or bad. As you said, La Resistance killed French officials for aiding the Nazis..when I would guess that often enough those officials only helped because they had no choice. Yet those killings are considered “justified.” This man, Rodger, went after women for the sins of other women, or at least the perceived sins. Killing is killing. Is killing better when it is done against Nazi collaborators who may have no choice in their actions, but worse when it is against women…simply because the former are “nazi” and the later are women?

        To me…not really. Killing is killing. Life is a sacred thing. Sometimes, Killing is needed, but one should always value the sacredness of the life one takes. To me, at least.

        Got to wrap this up for now, but last thing. About the ignoring male victims, you might be getting different news reports than me. The ones I see typically have it as “HE killed X number of women, and various other victims.” Which….seems an odd way of putting it. Did he kill more than X women (X being the algebraic variable) or were these other victims….something else? Why not say “X women and Y men?” When reports strip away identity…something strikes me as…fishy. Could just be my work with the dead. But others have noticed that a lot more emphasis is put on the women he killed, and that any men are either ignored by some reports or commentators, or they are brushed aside for the chance to advance a political message.

        Anyway, I hope that clears some of the confusion of my words up. It’s not that I’m apologizing for him, its just that i’m not applying value judgements…yet.

        • There are a lot of objective differences in different kinds of killings. For instance, the women Rodger resented hadn’t actually done anything wrong. They just chose not to date him. It’s okay to choose not the date someone. On the other hand, Nazis were killing French people by the droves and destroying the country. I’m assuming you can see why one circumstance merits an aggressive response and the other does not.

          Another key difference is blame. Not only did 0 women wrong Rodger, but the ones he killed were not the ones he (wrongly) resented. On the other hand, bureaucrats working for Nazis were actually working for Nazis. They might feel coerced, but the reality is they’re responsible for orders being carried out. Killing them slows Nazi projects, causes chaos and discourages collaboration. There is a real difference between killing a random person versus killing a person who is a crucial part of an enemy machine.

          Does that mean the French resistance actions were “good”? No, but it does mean there’s a real difference. We can’t just say “it’s all relative”… unless we’re trying to obscure the very obvious reasons why Rodger was a bad guy. We can argue all day whether killing enemy bureaucrats is ever justified, but there’s really no gray area about Rodger. Killing people who are not even connected to other people who never wronged you? I have yet to find the moral system that would give that a thumbs up.

          • I’m right there with you, actually. Which…is part of the problem I’m having. Because I’m running to to the attitude that it s acceptable to just punish anyone for the wrongs of another.

            And no, none of these women did anything to Rodger and killing them was deeply dishonorable for that. Still, in the quiet moments of the night I wonder…if one of them, or any woman, had shown him some attention rather than all unilaterally ignoring him…would we be here? No woman has the obligation to sleep with a man she doesn’t want to…her body, her choice…but choices have consequences, not all of them are nice, and rejection, loneliness, and belittlement (as Rodgers experienced) make for bitter people who have to share their pain.

            Subjectively and objectively, there is a difference between french officials and these women. On the flip side though…as they say one man’s villain is another man’s hero.

            Going through the posts you’ve made the last couple days about the difference between true heroism and heroic delusional-ism I’ve been reminded of something I read once about the poem Beowulf. Did you know that in the original text, the same word to describe Beowulf and Grendel, but later translators did it so that Beowulf was a hero and Grendel was the monster…but the original word actually meant both. Heroes are monsters, and monsters are heroes.

            Rodgers did a monstrous thing in the name of justice or retribution. I know people who consider themselves good, tolerant, righteous people….who thought it was perfectly acceptable to starve an entire town out of existence, leave hundred, thousands homeless, simply because they didn’t like what a police chief said. They believed with all their hearts that not only was such a monstrous act justified, but that it was righteous and heroic.

            Maybe it’s different for you, but all to often I see any and every kind of “hero” that people get behind believe it perfectly acceptable to harm the innocent for their cause. Sad to say, but you’re probably about the last Hero that I can actually believe in. Every other hero out there….they are heroes, not delusional or anything like that, they’re honest heroes…but they’re monsters too.

  2. Pingback: SuperHero Bear (Drawing) - William Tillis

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