in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The Art of Manliness Podcast #34: The Attributes of a Hero With Dr. Frank Farley

Welcome back to another episode of The Art of Manliness podcast! Well, we went on a little hiatus with the podcast. I’ve received several emails and tweets asking what happened to it. With Gus being born and work on the second book, I put the podcast on the backburner. I just didn’t have enough time for it. But now that Gus is on a regular schedule and the book manuscript has been turned in, we’ll be returning to our regular bi-weekly podcast schedule.

In this week’s episode I talk to Dr. Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at the Temple University. For the past twenty years, Dr. Farley has researched heroism and the psychological attributes of heroes. In our interview, we discuss  some of these attributes, why society needs heroes, and what we can do as men to be heroes for our children.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and we’re finally back with another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Well it is good to be back, we took a little hiatus with the podcast with Gus being born and the work on our second book, the podcast got put on the back burner but we’re back and we will be returning to our regular schedule of new manly podcast every other week. So let’s get started with this week’s edition.

What makes a man a hero? What attributes do heroes share? Are heroes made or born? Well our guest today has been researching these questions for 20 years. His name is Dr. Frank Farley and he is a professor of psychology at the University of Temple. Dr. Farley has focused his research on how psychology affects risk taking, motivation and heroism. Well Professor Farley welcome to the show, we appreciate your time.

Dr. Frank Farley: Delighted to be here.

Brett: First of all you have done a lot of work in the study of heroes or heroism or what makes a hero. What inspired you to study that because it’s kind of an interesting area of study?

Dr. Farley: It is and I really got into it back in 1980s, middle to late 1980s for many reasons, one of which is that psychology this great field really wasn’t doing much about heroes. They were studying all sorts of things but heroes wasn’t a major one. If you look around at society, the very concept of hero is enormously important. People often model their lives, certainly some of their life after heroes and the world of entertainment look at Hollywood couldn’t survive if it couldn’t put heroes on the screen. History is heavily influenced by this idea of heroes. So I started studying it and you know other reasons are that we need more heroes both the great heroes, the ones out there on the world stage, the Martin Luther King Junior or the Gandhi, famous people are out there changing the world. But we also need heroes up close and in our families and in our communities and in our lives where we need people to take a stand on issues, help out a neighbor, be kind, loving and generous to other people. All of those are heroic qualities and we need them both up close and personal in our lives, in our communities, in our cities, in our country, our nations.

We also need them out there on the world stage, the people who literally change history. So we need heroes.

Brett: But why is that, I think a lot of people very jaded or cynical people in our post modern world but even beyond that. Heroes are something for a prior are, a prior time, we should be beyond this hero worship and just seeing people for who they are and not attributing anything more to them that’s there?

Dr. Farley: And those are all great points. I don’t use the term hero worship. I’m not interested in worshiping heroes. I don’t encourage it, I don’t think it is important. So I am certainly not suggesting that but to me heroes are people who change the world in a positive way. And so you know Winston Churchill was a hero, he stepped up to the plate when in World War II in England and was enormously influential in the outcome of the war. Martin Luther King Junior stepped up to the plate where civil rights under assault. In the Southern United States and in other parts of the country Gandhi stepped up to the plate and put his life on the line. In fact both he and king were assassinated for the heroic work they were doing. We need heroes, we don’t need hero worship, we need heroes to inspire us, to sort of help us get direction in our lives and we also need heroes up close. We need people in our communities, in our families who will inspire us, will encourage us, that we can learn from and people who will do right in our lives both up close and at a distance. Those are what heroes are and I have no problem whatsoever with the concept of heroes by the way it has long history in the human race.

You can go back to mythology of thousands of years ago when we had heroes and we still have them and we have them for a reason.

Brett: Basically the heroes inspire us to be the better angels of our better selves, the angels of our better selves right?

Dr. Farley: Yes, they have many qualities and we could talk about.

Brett: Yeah, let’s get to that. What are some of the qualities that heroes share that you found in your study?

Dr. Farley: By the way there are so many approaches to studying heroes and to understanding heroes. Often heroes will differ one to the next, that is they may all be doing good works and inspiring activities but they may differ in all sorts of other ways, differ in their background, their race, their gender, their ethnicity, their educational level and so on.

But some of the things that I think are important courage and strength, I think that’s one of the defining qualities of heroes. They are courageous, they don’t shrink from challenge and they rise to the occasion when good deeds are needed. Another aspect I think that’s important for heroes, generosity, kind, compassionate, generous. Heroes tend to be giving people. They are generous and in some cases they give their lives as in Martin Luther King and Gandhi for what they were doing. That’s the ultimate act and to give up your life for great and noble cause. Heroes tend to be pretty accomplished people and tend to be skilled, intelligent accomplished in some way. They are good at something.

They maybe, Gandhi was lawyer for example and Churchill was a very accomplished person. You can go on through all the list of heroes but they tend to be good at something. Honesty and integrity is another feature. Many people who we might think might be heroes are sort of knocked off the pedestal because they are shown to be dishonest. So integrity and honesty are key features. Another aspect of heroes that I think is important is our feelings about them. That is do we feel affection for them or something positive or good directed from us the people to the hero. It could be if it’s up close it could be our feeling toward our parents or somebody else in our lives who is doing heroic things or it could be how we feel about a national figure and kind of emotional or sectional quality that we feel toward that person.

Another feature something I studied a lot is risk taking. By and large I think that we want our heroes to be willing to take risks. We don’t really want our heroes to be wall flowers you know people who sort of wimp out and are willing to take on the big challenge or even a relatively small challenge. They are just risk averse. And so much of heroism requires a dose of risk taking. You know if you are going to run into the building and save the baby, the burning building and save the baby or jump into the river and save a life, it’s very hard to do that if you are seriously risk averse you know, you got to be have that risk taking quality in there somewhere. If you are going to stand up a tyrant maybe in the workplace or maybe a government tyrant, a leader you know the kind of thing that’s going on this spring in Egypt if you are going to stand up to what you believe to be a tyrant that’s risky and so the people who I happen to believe the people will tend to do that tend to have this risk taking quality in a significant way. And then finally I think another thing aspect that we look for often in our heroes is motivation. You know they are motivated people, they have got drive, they are determined they are motivated and you will see that Gandhi is one of my favorite examples. And despite you know being in a different culture from us and sometimes ago he still resonates, you know you should see the movie Gandhi, it’s just an inspiration. He was so determined and so motivated to get the British out of India and to create home rule in his own land, and I mean his determination was just amazing. So those are some of the qualities.

Brett: A question came to me as you were speaking that I was hoping maybe you might know, is whether the circumstances make the hero? What I mean by that, are there some individuals that you study that would have just led pretty normal average life, mediocre life if it weren’t for some grave challenge they had to step up to and they were able to flourish and you know they needed that to become heroic. Or is it something that you are just born with and doesn’t matter the circumstance and you’re going to be heroic no matter what?

Dr. Farley: Honestly Brett, we don’t know for sure. But we do know that there is in many psychological qualities and you know psychology is at the center of heroism. The only way we can really understand heroism thoroughly is basically through psychology in my view. But one of the things we found in the world of psychology is that many, many psychological qualities have some genetic factor. We don’t know how much, it can vary from psychological quality to psychological quality and so on but so my take on it is something like this – I think that heroism is a mixture, it’s due to your upbringing, your family, your community, the influences in your life, your peer group, the people who have had an impact on you. It’s also due to who you are and I think it’s both – it’s the person and it’s the environment and experiences the person has had.

So for example I was talking about risk taking if you are very risk averse, you just don’t take risks, you stick to the safe, the secure, the tried and the true. You probably won’t do the greater heroic things. You may not jump into the river to save the person, you may just quickly phone 911. So you will do something but it may not place you yourself at risk. Some people just really have trouble with dealing with risk and so my guess is that the truly risk averse probably won’t do some of those heroic deeds. On the other hand there are the risk takers and the people who sort of thrive on risk, and the kind of more fearless people among us and they’ll do that job. So again it’s a mixture of the person and the situation of their lives, how they were raised, their parental influence, the influence of all sorts of other people, even you know what they’ve been reading and their peer group and what goes on at school, all of those things can impact them and that together with their personality, who they are, are they risk averse or not and the outcome will tell the story.

Brett: Do you think people could become more heroic if they wanted to, say they looked at their lives and said well I want to acquire more of these attributes, I know you know, I have a tendency to be like this but can they strive to be more heroic if they want?

Dr. Farley: I think so, I do think so. I don’t know if somebody who is just totally risk averse you know can move very far in the risk taking direction but I think that many people can become more heroic and a lot of it in my opinion depends on the institutions that really have an impact on us – family, community, schools, education, the people you surround yourself with. So I think people can become somewhat more heroic. One of the key ingredients for me is what I call you know factor G, generosity. I mentioned some of the traits of heroes and some of the qualities, generosity and risk taking are very important ones. The generosity piece that’s something you can teach, you can encourage in children you know and helping them to help others. And there is nothing new about that, you know the boy scouts and the girl scouts they all have those kind of ideas to help others. Most great religions have that as well, do unto others as you would have them do unto you etc.

The G factor to me is a very important one and it’s also one that you can do something about. You can raise children to be helpful, giving, generous kids and that’s a key factor in heroism. It’s not the only factor but it’s an important factor. The risk taking factor is another one that you can work on. You can get children to be a little bit more risk taking, if they are kind of risk averse you can encourage them to try a new thing, try a new experience instead of just always doing the same thing and sticking to the tried and true, try this experience or that experience you know. Try out that little roller-coaster [laughing] at the local community fair. Move them along a little step at a time so that they begin to be capable of facing change and facing challenge and that’s the essence.

In my opinion the survival skill of the 21st century is dealing with change and risk and uncertainty. We are in an uncertain century and look at what’s happening in the Middle East right now, who knows where that will go. Who would have thought that America could be invaded you know and the two largest buildings in the country brought to the ground. And so this is going to be a century of change and uncertainty and risk and challenge and so I think it’s very important to get kids who are very risk averse to work with them. If your children are like that work with them to get them to be willing to go out a little bit on the limb and pretty soon they will get better at it and better at it and that’s a survival skill, so that when some really horrendous challenges come into their lives they will be able to deal with it.

Brett: Okay, so one of the things you mentioned the attributes of a hero is how society feels about them, how we feel about heroes and it seems like just even in my own lifetime, you know I’m 28 years old it seems there’s been an apprehension by individuals to take on the mantle of heroes and even by society at large to look at the individuals as heroes. I think it was, I remember I grew up admiring baseball players and football players and there came a kind of time when I stopped doing that and I know a lot of my other friends stopped. And for over a century in this country athletes were a source of heroes for a lot of kids. I remember Charles Barkley I think he’s the one that said, “I am not a hero…heros are for kids, I’m just an athlete”. What do you think happened in our society, in our culture where being a hero or looking to people as heroes has sort of been on the decline?

Dr. Farley: Well, I don’t know for sure but we still have heroes and I think that post 9/11, you know 9/11 showed us what heroism was. The police, the firefighters and so on they did not have to go back into that building to save lives. They could have just walked away and said you know you can take this job and shove it. But what was over 300 of firefighters and police and emergency medical care you know and America really saw what heroism was and I agree prior to that we just didn’t seem to have a lot of the real goods you know the real heroes. And along comes 9/11 and all of a sudden you know it jerks us back to heroism and there it is, that’s what it is and you know look kids that’s heroism.

You know this nation has been so influenced by heroes throughout our history but it did seem we were going through a period when we didn’t see a lot of heroes in government, in Washington D.C. you know. We have presidents who just didn’t seem to be great heroes and so on but I think we’re getting back to an appreciation of what heroism is. And it’s interesting about sports figures by the way, in most surveys that get done of American heroes they tend not to do very well anyway and maybe its sport commentators who sort of make them out to be heroes but I think Barkley is probably on to something. They’re not really perceived that much as heroes even by kids. Now kids will sometimes have sports heroes sure but here is an interesting thing for you, parents always outpolled sports figures as heroes.

Brett: Is that right? huh.

Dr. Farley: Yes, in fact that was one of the first things we discovered when we started doing heroes research in the late 1980s was all of a sudden we found when we asked people who their heroes were parents topped the list and it was the same for kids you know like seven – eight-year- olds young kids and adults that mother and father were the most frequently cited heroes. With kids after parents who then got you know some other relatives sometimes like grandmother, grandfather, and so on. And you also got a lot of super heroes Superman and that sort of thing. Those tended to drop out with older kids and with older kids, high school and so on and in college you begin to get real world heroes, Martin Luther King for example. But parents top it, sports figures tend not to be big on heroes list. I thought a lot about that and you know I have sort of come to the conclusion that there is too many sports figures [laughing]. We have so many leagues and so many sports and so many stars, how is the kid to pick out one over the other.

Back when Michael Jordan was active I mean he sort of so dominated the sport for a period of time and was so elegant and graceful and had all these positive characteristics that you know he was often seen as a hero. But by and large it’s hard for anyone anymore to stand out, truly stand out and be the hero of our time. And so I think that we won’t see sports figures very much in the heroes list, we haven’t you know recently and I think we will probably see even less going forward. But parents by the way I think the most consistent American hero, public hero you know the personality on the world stage is Martin Luther King. He occurs in survey after survey which is pretty interesting, it’s like people realized he was doing something profound and it’s the same with Gandhi. Now we don’t know Gandhi the way we know Martin Luther King, we don’t have streets named after Gandhi but Gandhi led the way. And it was a heavy influence over Martin Luther King of course non-violent protest etc.

And outpolled just about everybody other than parents. He outpolls most presidents. The presidents by the way in the last hundred years typically and polls get conducted, it tends to be JFK and FTR, those some are other tend to outpoll most of the other presidents. If you are going back earlier than the hundred years, Lincoln tends to be. And so you have got Lincoln, FTR, and JFK typically the most frequently cited in many polls where the Oval Office is concerned. And outside the Oval office but in the world of politics and civic life Martin Luther King Jr.–.

Brett: So Prof Farley you mentioned a little bit earlier some of the things that parents can do to have their children have an appreciation for heroes, is there anything else we can do to continue this trend of bringing back the hero in our society?

Dr. Farley: I think education has got to be a major area. Kids today 2011 in America spend more time for sure at school than they do with their parents each week. With a one parent family almost half of American families are now headed by one person. That one person can’t do it all. I mean the old nuclear family back in the 50s, mom, dad two and a half kids [laughing] that’s — the nuclear family has exploded, it’s gone. Back in those days both parents could be involved in helping, sharing the duties and helping each other and so on, that’s gone, at least for almost half of American families. So families can’t be the only institution of change, they are an important institution. And the media by the way is also very important in getting messages, heroic messages, heroic role models, heroic ideas out there. But education is the biggest institution I think that we can influence in this area. Kids spend all these several hours a day in school.

Here is an interesting thing. Back in, hundred years ago they often talked about heroes, they often taught the life of heroes, heroic behavior in the schools. We tend not to do that anymore. Now we talk about theories and isms you know or there is capitalism, there is socialism etc. But take an idea like nonviolent protest and try to teach it to kids today using isms you know using theories and all that kind of stuff and the kids you know will probably stare at you, show you this blank stare when they see in the media that it seems that problems are solved through violence, through revolution, through marching in the street, through war. I mean here is America, we got two wars going on right now basically and what’s a kid to believe and so they will assume that nonviolent protest is some absurd theory, marginal kind of idea. However if you then talk about the life of two heroes of that idea Gandhi and King, and talk about what they were able to accomplish through nonviolent protests the light bulbs come on. And the kids can see how it works because it’s embedded in the life and times of a real hero.

You are not talking fancy dancy theories from psychology or sociology or something, you are looking at a person who did it and it worked and it changed the world forever. And so to me that’s — we need more discussion of heroic behavior in the schools, in the classrooms, heroism up close that you can do yourself in your home and family and neighborhood as well as the heroes out there on the world stage, both of those can be taught and can inspire kids I think to be themselves more heroic.

Brett: Professor Farley we are coming to the end of our interview here is there any place our listeners can go to find out more about your work?

Dr. Farley: Well they can e-mail me – [email protected] and I will respond to them and then they can just look up my name you know Google me, see what they come up with, there is a lot of stuff there. But if they have a specific question and so on they could just shoot me an e-mail and I’d be delighted.

Brett: Oh excellent, Professor Farley we really appreciate your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Farley: It has for me too, thanks Brett.

Brett: Well that wraps up another edition of the “Art of Manliness“ podcast, for more manly tips and advice make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at and until next time stay manly.

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