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(Gregorio Borgia/AP)
(Gregorio Borgia/AP)

All hands on deck: How can we make more heroes? Add to ...

The scramble to escape the sinking Costa Concordia cruise ship off the west coast of Italy will not go down in history as the finest example of human nobility and sacrifice. According to first-hand accounts, people fought over life jackets; men pushed their way ahead of children and the elderly; and others tried to launch the lifeboats before they were full.

But don’t be so quick to judge: We all want to believe that we would act like crew member Manrico Giampedroni, 57, who continued his search for trapped passengers until, in the dark, he fell in the rising water and broke his leg. But heroes are the outliers of humanity. Most of us would have probably jumped ship along with Captain Francesco Schettino, who was seen hustling to shore while passengers still needed rescuing.

Something clearly sets the quick-thinking, self-sacrificing Giampedronis apart. And might there be a hero recipe to create more of them?

Sacrificing your life for someone else, especially a stranger, is “still one of the deepest mysteries of human behaviour,” says Frank Farley, a Canadian-born psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia who studies heroes. “It astounds us because there are nearly always some options. Someone else could do it, or you could run.”

Psychology has long been more interested in villainy than heroics, but new research is revealing more about the few among us who run into the burning building rather than out of it.

Dr. Farley suggests that heroes tend to be born risk-takers and thrill-seekers with adventurous personalities, more likely to be mountain-climbing on their holidays than sipping poolside cocktails on a cruise ship. They are often people whose parents modelled compassion and altruism when they were younger, perhaps explaining why, when interviewed later, many heroes describe acting instinctively, as if they had no other choice.

In 2008, terrorists attacked a hotel in Mumbai; many of the employees risked their lives, and many died, attempting to keep the guests safe.

When Rohit Deshpandé, an ethics professor at the Harvard School of Business, went back and interviewed the surviving staff members, he found that they had not had any terrorism training. He also discovered that, when recruiting for employees, the hotel had hired not the smartest graduates, but the ones who showed the most optimism when confronted by adversity and had the highest respect for others.

The employees told Prof. Deshpandé that they had acted not out of company loyalty but because it was the right thing to do. “There’s an individual moral compass [that]orients human beings to the right things,” he says. “Yes, in fact, I think this is trainable.”

Prof. Deshpandé, who uses the Mumbai example as a case study in his classes, has been part of a project to bring a stronger focus on ethics and morality into the school’s curriculum.

But for the best results, the hero recipe probably needs to begin well before business school.

Training a “heroic imagination” in young people has become a new focus of study for Philip Zimbardo, a prominent psychologist at Stanford University (and developer of The Heroic Imagination Project). In a survey of 4,000 Americans, he suggests that about 20 per cent of people qualify as heroes, from whistle-blowers to people who jump in front of the subway train to save a stranger.

They tend to live in urban areas, where there are more people in need and more opportunities to be heroic. They are more educated, perhaps making them more aware of situations requiring acts such as whistle-blowing, and more empowered to help. And they are more likely to be active volunteers – one-third of the sample of heroes donated 59 hours of their time to volunteering each week.

But Dr. Zimbardo’s real question is: How do you make heroism the norm, not the exception. “How do you program that mentality into people before the emergency situation?”

He suggests that parents and teachers can stress to children that that do have the power to change the situation, and specifically give them the tools to build up their social influence among their peers (much like an executive’s strategy at a new company).

“We also work against the notion of the solitary hero,” he says, since many acts of heroism – other than in Hollywood – are the result of a network of people working together.

In one of his exercises, Dr. Zimbardo asks students to go to school with a big spot drawn on their forehead, so that they can experience the powerful peer pressure to wipe it off during the day. “A hero is a positive deviant,” he points out. “In those situations, the group often puts pressure on you not to act. How do you resist that pressure?”

That might mean standing up to a bully, or blowing the whistle on an unethical business practice, the kind of heroism that would have come in handy recently on Wall Street. And, on rare occasions, it means going back into the bowels of a sinking ship.

And even if, as a ship’s officer, Mr. Giampedroni had a larger responsibility to help than a paying passenger, duty doesn’t guarantee a hero. When he was finally rescued 36 hours later, his frantic, 78-year-old mother told reporters, “If they had told me he was dead, I would have died too.” But now she can bask in maternal pride: As heroism researchers would tell her, he must have been raised right.

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