The Heroic Imagination

Heroism is an idea as old as humanity itself, and some of its subtleties are becoming lost or transmuted by popular culture. Being a hero is not simply being a good role model or a popular sports figure. We believe it has become necessary to revisit the historical meanings of the word, and to make it come alive in modern terms. By concentrating more on this high watermark of human behavior, it is possible to foster what we term “heroic imagination,” or the development of a personal heroic ideal. This heroic ideal can help guide a person’s behavior in times of trouble or moral uncertainty.

An important factor that may encourage heroic action is the stimulation of heroic imagination—the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, to struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider one’s actions and the consequences. By considering these issues in advance, the individual becomes more prepared to act when and if a moment that calls for heroism arises. Strengthening the heroic imagination may help to make people more aware of the ethical tests embedded in complex situations, while allowing the individual to have already considered, and to some degree transcended, the cost of their heroic action. Seeing oneself as capable of the resolve necessary for heroism may be the first step toward a heroic outcome.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo is a Stanford University Emeritus professor of psychology and the Founder of The Heroic Imagination Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering ordinary people to do extraordinary things, who is internationally recognized as the “voice and face of contemporary psychology,” and renowned for his classic research, The Stanford Prison Experiment (August 1971).