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It takes a village and the right circumstances to make a hero

Everyone has what it takes to be a hero given the right set of circumstances, according to a new study.

Researchers from Ohio State University and California State University, Sacramento found that contrary to previous research, heroism is not determined by personality but by a large set of extenuating circumstances including social setting, religious preferences, and family history.

The study was published online in the journal Social Forces and examined heroism among the Hutu in Rwanda who rescued or harbored persecuted Tutsi from genocidal violence in 1994.

At first, the researchers set out to find links between personality and courage, but after conducting in-depth interviews with the Hutu, they found that heroism is a largely social effort.

“We started this study thinking we would identify the individual characteristics that motivated rescuers, because that’s what most previous research had pointed to,”  said Hollie Nyseth Brehm, a co-author of the study. “But we realized very quickly that most people who rescued weren’t doing this alone. It was a form of collective action. The social dynamics and situational context were key factors in determining whether someone decided to rescue.”

The researchers also found that even those who did rescue the Tutsi could not be classified as heroes because there were Hutu who murdered some Tutsi but saved others.

This is why it’s important to understand what factors motivate a person’s actions.

The researchers conducted one to two interviews with 35 Hutu who said they had saved at least one Tutsi during the genocidal violence of 1994. Data from an earlier survey of 273 rescuers conducted for another study was also used in the research.  

The results showed that three major factors influenced the choice of whether or not to save the Tutsi: biographical availability, socialization, and situational context.

Biographical availability involves the specific circumstances that allowed a person to rescue a Tutsi. For example, older, wealthier Hutu were more likely to rescue the Tutsi than those who did not have the influence or socioeconomic status of other Rwandans.

Family history and religious affiliation also influenced heroism. In the interviews some individuals recalled their family members rescuing Tutsi during similar periods of violence earlier on.

This gave some Hutu the motivation and courage to follow in their family’s footsteps.

Another factor was whether or not someone had personal ties to the Tutsi as some of the rescuers specifically helped someone they knew.

All in all, the results show that there are certain factors that go into an act of heroism. The context of the situation at hand, the social dynamics at work, family history, and even religious affiliation are all drivers behind heroism.

“These results suggest that nearly anyone can engage in heroic deeds,” said Brehm. “You may not need a certain personality type, as long as you have the right network of friends and family and a support system that can help you.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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