An interesting study was issued recently by psychologists at the University of Illinois, suggesting that the profile pictures or “avatars” that people choose to use in online gaming may subconsciously influence how they see themselves, and how they treat other people. Researchers found that when subjects thought of themselves as Superman, they were less likely to harm someone else when given an opportunity to do so (in a minor way) in real life. Conversely, when the subjects identified with the evil Lord Voldemort from “Harry Potter”, they were far more likely to take advantage of a real-life opportunity to harm someone else – again, even if only in a minor way.
Obviously there are potential implications from this study with respect to violent video games, and these results will be pored over by experts in developmental psychology. However rather than focusing on the negative conclusions one might reasonably draw from such findings, it might be more useful to look at them as another example of science proving a human trait which, instinctively, we all share. Humans want to know about other humans to look up to, and to model themselves after, even if realistically they only are able to achieve that mirroring in the smallest of ways.
We should first clarify what this study is NOT. These findings are not some sort of justification to go out on a make-believe crusade and behave like an idiot, thereby running the risk of injuring oneself or others. Sadly, in this day and age, such a caveat is in fact necessary. Yet putting aside those with some sort of street vigilante death wish, there is something anciently, fundamentally human about the practice of talking about heroes, real or imagined, and then looking to those heroes as examples.
In ancient cultures, stories were of course told about the exploits of the gods, but legends were also told about humans who did extraordinary things. The touchstones of Western literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are accounts of the deeds and exploits of such men and women, designed to make those who heard them appreciate the differences between good and evil, right and wrong. In the process, authors such as Homer hoped that the audience would be inspired by the pursuit of good, and shun the embrace of evil. Perhaps the average Greek would never get to slay ferocious beasts like Hercules in these kinds of stories or in the art they inspired, but they could discern the better aspects of his character and behaviour, and try to imitate his example in their own lives, while simultaneously avoiding the excesses of his personal pitfalls.
Fast-forward to Ancient Rome, and we have the real-life cult of the gladiators. In ancient graffiti in the Coliseum and throughout the Roman Empire, we see evidence of people arguing heatedly over which of the arena performers was the greatest. Although they were not gods or demi-gods themselves, these men who fought one another in public garnered huge followings as people projected themselves onto both their actual exploits on the sands, as well as the legends being told about them, which circulated like court gossip. It allowed the average Roman citizen to imagine that he could fight a wild beast or a savage enemy himself, if put to the test, even if he led a reasonably uninteresting life in some provincial capital.
Today, to those who think they are too sophisticated to fall into such practices, one would suggest they look about the next time they go out in public – or for that matter, cast an accusing eye into the mirror. See that fellow wearing the jersey with Alexander Ovechkin or Peyton Manning’s name and number emblazoned on it? Is he really any different from that ancestor inspired by tales of adventure and heroism to go out and try to do more than he thought himself capable of?
Even those staying up late to watch this year’s Winter Olympics from Russia on television are, at least sociologically, the descendants of those who engaged in such celebrations of other people’s achievements at the original games back in Ancient Greece. Most of those watching the Olympics have absolutely no hope whatsoever of competing at an elite level in any of the sports on screen. Yet as human beings they still feel inspired, at least on a subconscious level, by these athletes. They continue watching and cheering, whether for reasons of health, patriotism, or in admiration of human ability and determination. And perhaps for some of them, the positive examples of these men and women take hold, even if only in a small way.
The conclusions to be drawn from this research study are too many to treat in a single blog post, and I am certainly not qualified to even attempt to make them all. Yet these results clearly do speak to a fundamental human need for heroism. We want – need – to feel that we can achieve much more than others or perhaps we ourselves think we are capable of. The Greeks learned this about themselves from Odysseus’ experiences, as that character came to understand himself, just as we also can do from Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and Harry Potter, lo these thousands of years later.