Christopher Ebbe,  Ph.D.    6-14

ABSTRACT:  Human beings seek reassurance through idealizing others, whom they then view as heroes.  This dynamic is explored, along with advantages and disadvantages.

KEY WORDS:  heroes, idealization, role models, existential anxiety


Existential anxiety is an endemic state of human beings.  Since we have the capacity to imagine the future and to recognize that bad things can happen, we search for ways to be confident that we will survive and to reassure ourselves that our lives will be OK.  A frequently used method for finding this reassurance is to idealize those whom we view as powerful and successful figures and to then believe that (1) they will help and protect us, (2) their power and success will protect us, or (3) if we approach life as they do, we will survive and prosper.

The prototype for this is in our experience as infants and children, when we are totally dependent on parents for survival and for all gratifications.  We ascribe great powers to our parents, and many people continue to view their parents as the guarantors of survival and success, feeling that as long as their parents are alive and close by, this will ensure that they (the children) are OK.

As children we explore first our physical capacities in the world, learning to ambulate, run, make tools, and fight.  We revel in our abilities to create gratifications for ourselves, but we also learn that there are others who are stronger and more able and who could harm us significantly if they chose to.  Fortunately social mores and rules (morals, laws, justice systems) offer all of us some protection from physical harm, but many people expand their list of heroes from their parents to others in their group who theoretically at least could protect them if needed.  Goliath in the story of David and Goliath from the Bible is an example, put forth by his group to use his strength to protect and enhance their situation.  The hero worship that sports figures receive in our society is another example.  Their physical powers are envied, and in our fantasies they are persons that we can believe would “fight” for us capably if needed.  (We already use them to “fight” for us in the arena of sports competition between our town or city and other towns and cities, the outcomes of which influence our self-esteem and our sense of security in the world.)

We also use our parents and other heroes as identification figures from whom we learn how to deal with life’s demands.  We pretend to be Mommy or Daddy in playing “dress-up” or dolls or pretend to be the hero or heroine in the movies or TV shows that we watch, as we imitate what we see as adaptive behaviors and practice doing them ourselves.  All of us can probably remember idealizing characters in movies and acting like them for a time after seeing those movies.  Imitation is perhaps the premier learning mechanism that we have as human beings.

The necessary ingredients for this use of heroes are (1) our awareness of the limitations of our abilities and our fears of the uncertainties of life, (2) our need for reassurance and support (so as to feel more secure and to hope to achieve beyond our own limited capabilities), (3) a figure (current, historical, or from the spirit world) that we view as inspiring or as powerful, successful, and possibly being willing to help us in time of need, (4) our idealization of this figure, and (5) our seeking a relationship (real, fantasied, or ritual) with the hero figure.  We often imitate that hero figure, and it is important to most people that their heroes be accepted as heroes by others in general.  Few people want a hero who is reviled by everyone else around them.  (There are a small number of people with “negative identities” (identities thought of as “bad” by most in society, such as Hell’s Angels or criminals) who idolize “experts” in their area and wish to be more like them.)


Many people choose heroes in sports, because physical activity is the skill that we develop first in life and is the skill most essential to our daily existence.  As children grow up, they play and compete through physical skills, and our society has created more and more opportunities to continue these activities in organized sports throughout our lifetimes (T-ball, Little League, Pony League, high school teams, college teams, professional teams, adult leagues for all ages).

As infants and young children we learn slowly to control and use our muscles and vision until we can utilize them to get what we want in the environment (climb out of the crib, chase the cat, get a drink of water).  All of these assertions of our desires in the world were labeled by Fritz Perls as “aggression,” since they all assert our desires in ways that quite often change the environment (cut down a tree, hurt the cat, leave one less glass of water in the water tank, etc.).  This view of “aggression” doesn’t mean that all action is violent, but it reminds us that taking action on or against the world, which we must do as human beings, is at root aggressive.  Both genders are aggressive in this sense, although girls seem to have evolved genetically to be less inclined to violence than boys, and girls are carefully trained not to be violent, while more violence is tolerated from boys (so that they will be readied to win a mate and protect their young as needed).  The eventual result is that domestic violence is usually violence by men, but a small percentage of abuse is violence by women against men. 

Engaging in violence to gain important goals seems to be “hard wired” by evolution into our human make-up, as evidenced by the fact that violence in response to frustration is so natural.  If not directly attacking another person or defending oneself, men punch walls, women break plates, and both genders throw things and yell and scream.  Football is an encapsulated activity that legitimizes violence and is reassuringly controlled by authority figures (coaches, referees, club owners).  Playing the game and watching the game allow us to engage in violence, either in behavior or vicariously, which may give some relief to our tensions.  All societies must put limits on violence, though, through laws and customs (like men should never hit women) even though they specifically allow it in some circumstances (self-defense, war).

Winning demonstrates superiority and dominance, especially in football because of its focus on violence.  All of us would like to be superior and dominant, even if we largely live by more cooperative and equalitarian principles that we sincerely believe in.  As children we sought dominance (over siblings and other children) and superiority, so that we could get the biggest share of the pie and the love available.  Some fans need their teams to win in order to keep up their self-esteem and confidence each week, but all fans participate to some degree in the subconscious drama of winning and losing, humiliating and being humiliated, triumphing over everyone else, being the best, etc.

One reason that even children may “enjoy” seeing violence is that we have all experienced as children actions by our parents that have felt frustrating and even violent to us.  Having parents not gratify our every desire is frustrating, regardless of the fact that it may be important for every child to learn to tolerate frustration without being violent.  Being handled quickly or roughly, being spoken to crossly or screamed at, and being spanked all feel violent to us.  Since parents don’t gratify our every desire, we both hate having our lives completely in the control of parents and appreciate parents for the gratifications they do provide.  Our anger leads us to want to fight back or hurt back, but we usually can’t because it would be too dangerous to do.  Our frustration and desire for revenge “build up” so to speak and then find outlet in video games, watching or engaging in violent sports, acceptable aggression (chopping wood with an axe, racing cars, “working it off”), or unacceptable aggression (breaking things, hitting our siblings or parents). 

Boys idolize football players because they are strong and because they “win” (at least part of the time) and because they are lionized for winning.  Boys also like seeing the violence for the reasons cited above.

Men idolize football players because they are strong and willing to engage in violence to gain ends, and men celebrate when their teams win and demonstrate their superiority and dominance.  Many men in our society feel constricted and helpless, trapped in their situations with little hope of change, and they vicariously engage with their teams in the violence that they would like to direct at somebody or something that would express their frustrations.  Engaging in joint violence to gain treasured goals establishes strong bonds, as we see clearly in those who go to war together, and many men end up valuing their combat comrades over all others in their lives.  Young boys are drawn into this aspect of human culture early, as athletic activities are natural to young people, and parents often push children into competitive sports.

Women idolize football players because they perceive them as being able to use controlled violence in the interests of their groups (team, family), and because women are just as interested in being dominant as men but, because of their gender role, often seek to achieve dominance through their men.  (Women of course seek dominance just among themselves, too, through status assertions, gossip, criticism, sub-grouping (cliques), and being better than others at valued activities (cleaning, cooking, having “good” children, etc.))  In addition, women have their own built-up anger regarding the pressures to play second fiddle to their men in order to preserve men’s confidence and stroke their egos, as well as the barriers to women’s advancement in many careers.


The other major area for finding heroes in the modern era is entertainment, where many of us use the fantasies provided to us by the entertainment industry to relate to hero figures (Paladin, Marshal Dillon in Gunsmoke, Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzeneger, the heroine in Arrow, James Stewart in various roles, our favorites on Survival and Big Brother, our favorite singers).  Many people like to identify with and imagine themselves as famous singers and actors and may act out their adulation in being fans, groupies, or devotees.  Fame and adulation are often more important to these people than skill in the activity.


Most people admire those who accumulate great wealth, and a few identify with the very rich as heroes.  They imagine themselves living in opulence and carrying out the activities that are involved in gaining wealth (inventing, partnering, directing, consulting, buying and selling, etc.).


A small number of people are attracted to heroes in the area of religion (saints, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha), usually with emphasis on the compassionate or inspirational.  We make sacrifices and pray for help to Jesus, the saints, or the more nebulous figures of God or Allah.  These heroes generally inspire more prosocial behavior than sports and entertainment heroes, but men who choose a religious life are secretly seen by many as effeminate, and group religious life (monasteries, etc.) is less and less popular in modern times when compared to the attractions of money and consumer goods.


Among the very few persons in any society with high intelligence, some identify with intellectual giants as heroes (Frederick Nietzsche, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, chess grandmasters, Leonardo Da Vinci, Socrates), thinking that the insights of those heroes will guide us to happiness and success and hoping that as long as we have brilliant thinkers among us, our group will survive..  People without that intelligence find it almost impossible to imagine doing the intellectual activities involved, and American society has an anti-intellectual bias that also makes intellectual heroes less popular.  (In France, philosophers are thought of more highly than here!)


Choosing heroes is usually unconscious rather than the product of consideration.  Following our inherent penchant for imitation, we gravitate toward those we would like to be or be more like.  From the proportions of types of heroes in our society that is suggested in this essay, we would conclude that the majority believe that they would gain more in life if they were very good at sports or famous as entertainers.  Most people do not change their heroes as they grow older, but it is possible to purposefully reconsider our choice of heroes and to consider the benefit to us and to society of holding particular persons as heroes.  You might have had sports heroes earlier but as an adult see the world differently and could choose heroes that are more in accord with a broader perspective on life that places primary value on nurturing, contributing to the lives of others, and treating others in accord with your values.

The heroes we choose reflect as well as reinforce our values and have an impact on further shaping our society.  If we have predominantly violent heroes, then it suggests that we value violence (at least in some guises), while if we had predominantly religious heroes, it would suggest that we highly valued compassion and treating others well.  We tend to imbue our groups and society with the same values that we hold in our daily lives, so that if we value violence highly, it will be more acceptable in general, and we will see more overt violence in our daily lives.


As an example of the role of values in our choice of heroes, consider the interesting turmoil has arisen recently with respect to the National Football League and the domestic violence incidents of some of its players.  Many in society are very critical of these offending players, some even claiming that they should never be allowed to play football again!  Sponsors are jumping on the bandwagon, too, threatening to withdraw advertising monies from NFL games.

These emotional reactions to domestic violence are perhaps understandable, but why are football players the object of this criticism?  It is because so many in our society view them as heroes and role models for using aggression and violence in good causes (winning, the honor of the city, etc.), and we expect them to confine themselves to good causes and to serving as our heroes.  Young males would like to be them, adult men depend on them for feeling manly, and many women see them as models for husbands, because of their elevated status and their strength, which implies that they could do a good job of protecting a wife and children, a prime quality for women in selecting a mate.  When our football playing heroes use violence in unacceptable causes (maintaining dominance over spouses, getting in fights in bars, involving themselves in thefts or even murder), we are disturbed and angry at the failure of our heroes.

Some inconsistencies and hypocrisies are illustrated by noting that (1) these incidents have been going on for years (so why be concerned now?), (2) throwing players out of the league will not solve the problem, since there will be many more in the future to abuse their spouses or children, (3) domestic abuse happens in all subcultures and all neighborhoods, not just by football players, and this emotion focuses only on football players, (4) some basketball, baseball, and soccer players undoubtedly engage in domestic violence, but there is no notice taken of this, and (5) other kinds of violence by football players are not being criticized with the same emotion, such as harming other players through their violence and fights in bars. 

No one in the media is talking about these identification and modeling issues.  Most of the discussion is gossiping, outrage, sensationalism, and the games of “Ain’t it awful” and “Somebody (else) should do something.”  We should ask ourselves, though, what the implications are for our culture if football players are at the apex of our list of heroes.  Football is an interesting and complex game, but it is a violent sport.  Does this mean that we idolize the people in our culture who are most violent?  There is some artistry in football to ball carriers eluding other players and to the passing game, but the linemen simply push and shove to gain advantage, and defensive players are routinely trained to hurt other players if possible.  Concussions and brain damage are rampant.  Why, then, should these men be heroes?

The collisions between football players that occur are not always violent, but those colliding may make them violent, and a certain amount of this violence is tolerated and even praised by onlookers who get a little thrill out of seeing this, just as they do when seeing cars being wrecked in stock car races.  We should remember, therefore, that aggression and violence are a natural part of being human and that many people in society watch football partly because of its aggression and violence.  Note also that most video games, that are played by a significant percentage of citizens, both adults and children, involve violence of an even worse nature than in football.

The point is to recognize and accept (however reluctantly) that aggression and occasional violence are part of being human and that human beings will probably always engage competitively in efforts to be dominant (even if we try to counterbalance this by pursuing compassionate philosophies of living and restricting the sale of guns).  Playing and watching football are going to be part of this aspect of human life.  As with other problem behaviors, probably the best we can do is not to take it any more seriously than is necessary, to gain our self-esteem in other ways, to nurture other valuing that counterbalances the violence (like appreciating beauty or valuing compassionate and nurturing people skills), to put clear limits on the violence in football (prohibit certain dangerous types of tackling, etc.), to protect the bodies of those who play as best we can while not encouraging greater violence by that protection.  (Since violence helps to win games, giving players more protective uniforms and helmets has not reduced the rate of injuries but rather has made it “life” for players to be even more violent!)