Heroic Action after Loss: A perspective on the aftermath of the Florida shootings

By members of The Hero Network, University of Limerick


On Wednesday 14th of February 2018, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida killing 17 people and wounding at least 15 others. Many of the bereft students from that school are now speaking out publicly and gaining international attention through social media and news channels. In this post, we consider the some of the many complex factors that may lead to these young people being considered heroes in the aftermath of a tragedy.

The Parkland community has experienced a massacre, a truly traumatic event resulting in grave loss and disruption. In any objective sense, they are victims and any feelings of confusion, helplessness, and even apathy are understandable in such circumstances (Böckler, Seeger, & Heitmeyer, 2011; Lehmann, 1997). However, many of the affected students are displaying behaviour more indicative of resilience than victimisation. Indeed, the unexpected violence of their experience followed by their emergence into the political and social sphere as agents of reform is reminiscent of the Hero’s Journey (Cambell, 1949; Franco et al., 2016).

Our own research (e.g., Kinsella, Ritchie, & Igou, 2015a) has demonstrated that heroes display a number of features that set them apart from others, including moral integrity, courage, self-sacrifice, honesty, willingness to take risks, prosociality, conviction, the capacity to inspire, and leadership. In the case of the Florida shootings, there are many reasons why the behaviour of the students is classed as heroic by some:

  • Heroes are willing to make sacrifices in the pursuit of justice. Here the students have already had to sacrifice their loved ones and the safety of their school.
  • The students’ behaviours appear authentic and honest. They seem courageous and unafraid of potential risks associated with challenging what seems morally wrong (the status quo), thus displaying a relatively high level of integrity. They display conviction and confidence that they have the capacity to make a difference (e.g., to change the outcome of an election). Like many historical heroes, they appear determined to lead others to bring about social change.
  • Their activities are directed at helping others to escape a suffering they have experienced. That is, they want to protect others from possible harm, putting the needs of the group (i.e., wider society) ahead of their own needs (e.g., grieving the loss of their loved ones).
  • The features listed above combine with a demonstrable intellect, a capacity to articulate their arguments quite clearly and to persuade and offer leadership.

In this particular situation, a group of teenagers are taking action themselves. They speak in opposition of politicians, NRA and gun violence.

One of those teenagers, Emma Gonzalez, delivered a 10-minute speech where she stated:

We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America … we are going to be the last mass shooting”.

Another student, Cameron Kasky, launched a Facebook page ‘Never Again MSD’ (Marjory Stoneman Douglas) and gained 35,000 followers on Facebook in just three days. On Twitter, the #NeverAgain campaign has been launched.

Heroes help others cope and offer some stability in chaos. For example, heroes uplift and inspire others, they model morals and ethical behaviour, and they help others feel protected by acting on their behalf (Kinsella, Ritchie, Igou, 2015b).  Many people might feel inspired by listening to the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who are challenging the authorities on issues related to morality. Those students are offering clarity of thought when there is a great deal of uncertainty. In turn, the students receive confirmation from others (via the media and social media) for their actions, which is reinforcing and makes them believe even more in their own capacities for making change.

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Böckler, N., Seeger, T., & Heitmeyer, W. (2011). School shooting: A double loss of control. In Control of violence (pp. 261-294). Springer, New York, NY.

Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Franco, Z. E., Allison, S. T., Kinsella, E. L., Kohen, A., Langdon, M., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2016). Heroism research: A review of theories, methods, challenges, and trends. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 0022167816681232.

Kinsella, E. L., Ritchie, T. D., & Igou, E. R. (2015a). Zeroing in on heroes: A prototype analysis of hero features. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 114-127. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038463

Kinsella, E. L., Ritchie, T. D., & Igou, E. R. (2015b).  Lay perspectives on the social and psychological functions of heroes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 130.  http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00130


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