Americans Say What Makes a Hero
National survey serves as a snapshot of current values
BOSTON — When Robert Pamplin Jr., a businessman and philanthropist in Portland, Ore., began asking people how they would define a hero, he expected answers that were, well, heroic. Possible responses, he thought, might include "a person who puts his life on the line and displays some kind of courage" or "somebody who falls on a grenade and saves his buddies."
Instead, Dr. Pamplin explains, "People thought for a few minutes and said, 'Being honest, being trustworthy - that's what makes a hero.' "
Those definitions, emphasizing values rather than valor, so intrigued Pamplin that he commissioned a national survey on heroism and ethics. Researchers polled 950 adults and teenagers, with sometimes surprising results.
The findings, published in "American Heroes: Their Lives, Their Values, Their Beliefs" (Master Media, $18.95), offer what Pamplin calls a "snapshot of American values."
The most important quality in a hero, according to 83 percent of respondents, is honesty, followed by compassion and high moral standards. Most also believe that being a hero entails having a spiritual life. Fame and being physically gifted rank at the bottom - an indication, he says, that people distinguish between true heroes and celebrities with a good press agent.
Other encouraging findings on ethics came in response to hypothetical situations involving honesty. When asked, "If you found a wallet in the street with $5,000 in it, would you turn it in?" 86 percent of adults and three-quarters of teenagers said they would.
Yet significant differences emerged between adults and teenagers. On another hypothetical question - "If you banged someone's car in a parking lot but no one saw you, would you turn yourself in?"- 85 percent of adults said yes, compared with 71 percent of teenagers.
Teens are also more likely to think lying is acceptable under certain circumstances. And while 87 percent of adults feel spirituality is important, only 73 percent of teenagers do.
Pamplin adds, "We asked, 'If you could cheat on a school test, you knew you wouldn't get caught, you'd get a better grade, and this would further your climb to success, would you do it?' Forty percent of teenagers said they would."
He finds that number troubling. "Eighty percent of teenagers say, 'Yes, to be a hero, one must be honest. Yet to be comfortable in life and to be successful in the things I want, materialism, I'm willing to sacrifice my chance to be a hero.' It's kind of like Faust - 'I'm wiling to sell my soul for a price. My price is, to buy a shiny new car, a glorious big house, a wallet full of money.'
"That's sad," Pamplin continues. "Even though they know what's right and they recognize it, and their adulation is offered to that person they consider to be the true hero, they themselves are willing to sacrifice it."
Pamplin says this division between the generations over honesty represents a shift from a time when family life was stronger. In earlier generations, he says, "Parents explained in no uncertain terms that the most valuable asset a person has is his character, not a wallet full of money. You can't buy character."
William Angell, whose Westport, Conn., firm, Angell and Company, conducted the survey, offers a further insight: He suggests that teenagers' attitudes might simply reflect immaturity. Perhaps, he says, "As they mature, they'll come into the mainstream on values."
Yet, another finding troubles Mr. Angell. Among teenagers, 65 percent of boys say that under certain circumstances, violence is appropriate. Only 27 percent of teenage girls agreed.
"Somewhere along the line, the boys' values are really getting out of whack, and I don't know how we get them back," Angell says.
Even so, he describes most of the survey findings as "heartwarming."
"There's a lot of heroism going on," he says. "I think that it's just done very quietly - nobody ever hears about it."
Pamplin, too, is heartened by other responses from teenagers. "So many of the young people will say, 'My mom, my dad, my coach - somebody who has really put the effort in life - that's my hero." Those attitudes, he notes, indicate that Americans today view heroism not as a single act but as a long-term way of living.
At a time when Americans have seen old-style heroes - political leaders, war heroes, sports figures, movie stars - toppled because of sexual misconduct, crime, and greed, teenagers in particular express a desire for more people they can emulate. Nine out of 10 teenage respondents think the nation needs more heroes and heroines. That shows, Pamplin says, "how desperately young people yearn for good role models."
Ideally, teenagers shouldn't have to look far for those role models. Among the American heroes Pamplin studied, he found what he calls a "golden thread" linking them.
"They were all connected to people who believed in them," he says. For many, but not all, that support began early and came from family members or friends.
"I don't think all is lost," Pamplin says. "If adults felt the same way teenagers do, you wouldn't have anything to build on. But adults recognize honesty and are willing to adhere to honesty no matter what. They are the teachers. The way to get back to heroism is through example. That example is built on spiritual belief and a set of values - honesty, integrity, fairness to others, caring, compassion."
Like the tortoise in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, Pamplin says, the true hero "goes along meekly and quietly and correctly, and wins out in the end. We need to exemplify those types of situations."