Bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker received incredible powers. At first, Peter used his power for his own gain and even let the villain escape. After his uncle was murdered by the same man he let get away, his perspective changed. Peter swore to protect those who could not protect themselves.
The well-known story of Spider-Man created the motto, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Heroes both fictional and real have certain powers, whether it is superhuman strength or the power to influence others.
But power can be exploited as demonstrated by the Stanford Prison Experiment. Some Pepperdine students and faculty related this abuse of power to recent police shootings and the 2016 presidential campaigns. They also explained how the media plays a role in presenting these events to the public. This role can affect who one sees as a hero.
So, what aspects did Pepperdine faculty and students say make a person respected? Pepperdine seminar and Italian professor Fiona Stewart said heroism is about putting others before yourself for the greater good. “I loved reading about people who fought in World War II,” Stewart said. “These people I thought were heroes because they were fighting for something bigger than themselves. “There was Nuto Revelli,” she said. “He was a soldier and partisan who fought against Mussolini. I admire his courage, principles and integrity. There was also Primo Levi, who did not fight but survived. As a Jewish chemist and intellectual, he showed that there is more than just strength.”
Allison Moyer, a Pepperdine student, said the qualities she sees in a hero and her own hero include being selfless, brave, humble and empowered. “They have to go above and beyond,” Moyer said. “My mother is very kind and such a good role model. Seeing everything she’s been through is so inspiring.”
Pepperdine student Sydnie Greger also considered her mother her role model. “My mother never seemed like she was afraid of anything,” Greger said. “In the way she carried herself, she encouraged me to never settle. She affected how I held myself and the ambitions I have now.”
Influence and empowerment is a recurring theme in a variety of hero stories, but the psychology behind power is a complicated concept. According to the official Stanford Prison Experiment website, PrisonExp, the Stanford Prison Experiment was directed by psychology professor Philip G. Zimbardo in 1971 and involved the participation of 24 male college students. The flip of a coin decided which half of the men were guards and which half were prisoners.
Once exposed to a prison environment, people’s behaviors changed. Guards forced the prisoners to perform humiliating tasks and punished those who disobeyed. Some prisoners had mental breakdowns and others rebelled. The experiment showed the strong effect power has–even when it’s not real. The study had to be cancelled after six days.
Pepperdine student Sarah Blase commented on the influence power can have on an individual and related this influence to police. “Power can easily have a negative impact on people because you can let it go to your head,” Blase said. “With the shootings that have recently happened, police have abused their power. Policemen are given guns, and they abuse that gun power by using it in situations where it’s not necessary. If someone was walking away from them or not armed, they still shot them just because they had the opportunity.”
Pepperdine student Lydia Parker also said one must be accountable for their power, but her view of police officers differed. “The effects depend on the amount of power and who the person is,” Parker said. “You could be a great person but [be] placed in a position where you have too much power. Unless you’re firmly founded in your values, you can fall into being selfish. As police go, I strongly support them,” she said. “There are the few who abuse their power, but I can’t get over how there are people who go out every day not knowing if they’ll come home. That’s something very admirable.”
Greger agreed that the concept of power is not good or bad, but a reasonable amount can be beneficial. “If someone feels like they have power, it can give them more confidence,” Greger said. “The right amount of confidence can allow someone to accomplish whatever they set their mind to. It’s about a balance.”
In an interview between Zimbardo and Victor Yalom from PsychoTherapy, Zimbardo said the guards from his experiment were not bad people. He then related his argument to heroes. “Most evil is done by ordinary people who are seduced, corrupted by certain kinds of situations,” Zimbardo said. “I want to argue that most heroes are also ordinary people who are often in those very same situations. They oppose the evil, and it’s the heroic act that’s extraordinary. It’s not the people.”
These heroic and not-so-heroic acts tend to be presented by news outlets. Communications professor and media expert Craig Detweiler said media can be a guide for our thoughts. “The media has a strong effect on how we define heroism, who we lift up and why we celebrate them,” Detweiler said.
Greger offered a real-life example of the impact news outlets have on people. “Caitlin Jenner got the ESPN Courage Award,” Greger said. “Everyone was very skeptical when she first decided to come out as transgender, but then because of the media’s support, people realized she was an incredible person.”
Pepperdine student Bria Dunlap said the news can alter one’s perspective. “In 2016, 2015 [and] 2014, there’s been a lot more media focused on how police have been abusing power and how that has affected how well they are able to do their job,” Dunlap said. “It goes the same for politicians, especially in the 2016 presidential election. Both have been painted in such a light that they seem to misuse their power a little bit more. When you consider how our parents or grandparent were taught to view politicians, it may have been a bit more positive.”
In Zimbardo’s interview with Yalom, Zimbardo said everyone has the potential to be a hero as long as they go above standard ideals and take risks. “A key component of being a hero is, when you engage in that heroic act you know at some level there’s a personal cost,” Zimbardo said. “In the extreme, I could die. I could get hurt. I could get fired. I could not get promoted. I could get people not to like me. Because heroes are deviants.”
“I want to democratize heroism and say anyone can be a hero,” Zimbardo said. “I’m going to be putting my best self forward in the service of other people. That’s really what it means to be a hero.”