01/06/2013 09:13 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2013

Heroes Aren't Just Idols

Who is your hero? Have you got an answer in mind? Put that aside. Now, how about the names of three heroes. Write them down or just say them to yourself. In just a bit, I'm going to offer my own three heroes -- the three names I would recite if someone asked me that same question -- but first I want to tell you about Prof. Scott Allison, and a few others in his academic cohort who are studying heroism. Allison is a professor at the University of Richmond who has written two books about this subject. The first, published a couple years ago, examines how heroism originates and what it means in our society. It delves into cognitive psychology, but also gets into issues that are of more interest to the general reader. It talks about how, for example, there is a fine line between heroism and villainy -- how personal characteristics that make for heroism can also inspire criminality. Risk-taking for example.

His second book profiles a hundred individual heroes in an attempt to categorize different types of heroism. There are religious heroes, political heroes, underdog heroes, and so on, but Allison categorizes heroes based on the influence they have on others. Why do we consider some people heroes and not others? "I'm trying to understand the psychology of heroes. He says that when you ask someone "Who is your hero?" or "Who are some of your heroes?" you'll likely get a list of idols, not real heroes: Justin Bieber. Tiger Woods. Some have even named Lindsay Lohan, bless her heart. (Follow who you will, at your own risk.) What you get many times are idols, people who represent wish fulfillment, rather than individuals who actually do heroic things. In the interview with two other researchers, which you can view on the web at The Hero Report, Allison says that when you ask people to name some heroes -- when the question is worded that way -- you get actual heroes. The three names he lists first are, in fact, my own top three personal heroes: Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. Partly as a result of these sorts of responses, Allison decided to categorize types of heroes and look at how different categories of heroes have an influence on the behavior of others. He came up with The Great Eight: a system for categorizing heroes into eight different primary types, drawn from interviews with 450 people, blue-collar, white-collar, a huge mix of people.

All of this is of great interesting to me. In my view, an idol can inspire you to do something exceptional or creative, yet a hero can teach what it means to choose the good through self-sacrifice. The best heroes inspire you to make thousands of daily choices. As wonderful and impressive as individual acts of heroism are -- teachers and staff who gave their lives to save students in the Sandy Hook shooting for example -- what really counts is how a hero's example of selflessness becomes an enduring model for a way of life, to many other people. Selflessness, putting one's own welfare second in an effort to improve the lives of others -- this is the common thread in all examples of true heroism. He elaborates on this in a video you can watch of his conversation with Ari Kohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska who studies heroism, and Matt Langdon, whose company, The Hero Construction Company, offers schools a program for teaching students how to be "their best selves."

As Allison puts it: "I'm a golfer, so Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are my heroes, but if you had to say who's the best person on that golf course it's probably somebody who volunteers in a soup kitchen. I grew up in Pittsburg. I grew up watching Roberto Clemente."

Roberto Clemente? I thought we'd covered athleticism with Tiger and Phil. Yet I'm surprised. He goes on to tell me something about Clemente I'd never heard before. I knew he was an exceptional relief pitcher, and that he'd died in a plane crash, but that was all. What I didn't know is that he was on that plane in an attempt to help other human beings desperate for aid. He died trying to save the lives of others. When the plane went down in 1973, in Nicaragua, Clemente was aboard to make sure that relief supplies it carried would get to earthquake survivors who desperately needed it.

"He was incredibly competent. Incredibly moral. He cared about human beings. And he died pursuing goodness and virtue. I put people like that on the highest pedestal," Allison says.

In the figure of Clemente, he sees both the idol and the hero, though most people probably know Clemente simply as someone who offers us a vicarious taste of mastery and victory on the playing field. Clemente represents, for Allison, not just a popular sports idol but a genuine hero as well, whose selflessness ranks as more admirable than his skill.

"I have a list of characteristics for heroism I give to students. Selflessness is important. Acceptance of risk as well. So your example makes sense," Langdon says.

Ari makes an interesting point, after this, about how sports has become in some ways a way of elevating physical prowess to heroic stature in our culture, the way we once did when warriors were more commonplace and more essential to our physical survival: "Simply being good at fighting used to be heroic. You went onto a battlefield you were a hero, regardless of what else you might have done." Yet he agrees that what Clemente did on that plane represents something of more value now: selflessness in the service of other people. (Most people) don't know it was a relief mission."

"Clemente said ... I'm going on the next flight to make sure it gets to the earthquake. The earlier flights had been hijacked by thugs," Allison tells them.

Allison sums it up: "I'm going to do ask my students in the fall. Justin Bieber or Martin Luther King. Hm. What does Justin have to do to catch up with King?"

In the video, all three laugh and nod with agreement. To be a hero requires more than great talent, rare skill -- power, in other words. At its best, being a hero requires personal risk, or personal sacrifice, grounded in moral choice. That can apply to a hard-working mother as well as a Medal of Honor recipient. Who are your personal heroes? How about the names of well-known heroes? Compare those two lists. Which of those names represent people who have had the most impact on your own behavior and life? Which would you prefer to have had the most influence on you and people you loves?

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice.