The Psychology of Heroism

Are Heroes Born or Made?

Are heroes born or made?. Images: Caven Images / Getty Images

"True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost." Arthur Ashe

Examples of Heroism

On January 2, 2007, approximately 75 people waiting at a busy subway station watched as a young man suffered a seizure and then fell from the platform onto the subway tracks. Onlookers watched in horror yet did nothing, but a man named Wesley Autry took action.

Handing his two young daughters to a stranger, he leapt down onto the tracks hoping to have time to drag the man out of the way of an oncoming train. When Autry realized that there was no time to move the other man, he instead held him down between the tracks as a train passed over the top of them.

"I don't feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right," he told The New York Times after the incident.

What makes certain people take heroic actions in the face of great danger? When you think about heroism, several recent examples might spring to mind. After the tragic theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, during the summer of 2012, three women who survived the shooting revealed that they had been saved by their boyfriends. The three men had shielded their girlfriends with their own bodies and died as a result. In another 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple, one man died trying to disarm the shooter while another suffered serious injury as he tried to help.

What Is Heroism?

Heroism is something that is deeply valued across cultures, but how exactly do we define a hero? What is it that inspires some people to take heroic action? While researchers know a great deal about what causes people to perform actions described as evil, our understanding of what makes people heroes is not quite so clear.

According to the Heroic Imagination Project, a non-profit organization that focuses on teaching people to become heroes, heroism involves a behavior or action on behalf of another person or for a moral cause. They identify four key elements of heroism:

  • It's voluntary
  • It is done in the service of people or communities in need
  • It involves some type of risk, either physical, social, or in terms of quality of life
  • It is done without the need for recompense or material gain

Heroism as Defined By Experts

How do psychologists and other heroism researchers define heroism? Here are just a few of the many suggestions put forth by various experts:

  • "Simply put, then, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward." — Philip Zimbardo, "What Makes a Hero?," 2011
  • "Although we find it true that heroism is in the eye of the beholder, we do acknowledge that people’s beliefs about heroes tend to follow a systematic pattern. After polling a number of people, we discovered that heroes tend to have eight traits, which we call The Great Eight. These traits are smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring. It’s unusual for a hero to possess all eight of these characteristics, but most heroes have a majority of them." — Scott T. Allison & George R. Goethals, "Our Definition of 'Hero," 2011
  • "Heroism consists of actions undertaken to help others, despite the possibility that they may result in the helper's death or injury." — Selwyn W. Becker & Alice H. Eagly, "The Heroism of Women and Men," 2004

Other definitions often break heroism down by types or degrees of the personal risk and sacrifice involved. Some involve grand acts such as endangering one's life in order to save another person, while others are smaller, everyday acts designed to help another human being in need.

Psychologist Frank Farley made a distinction between what he calls "big H" heroism and "small h heroism." Big H heroism "involves significant risk, which could include death, injury, imprisonment, or other serious or significant consequences," he explains.

Small h heroism, on the other hand, "is everyday heroism, helping others, doing good deeds, showing kindness, etc., where serious harm or major consequences are not usually a result."

What Makes a Person a Hero?

So now that we know a bit more about what heroism is, the question shifts to exactly why people become heroes? Are there any characteristics of heroism that these individuals seem to share? Farley suggests that there are two key factors underlying the grand acts of heroism that involve a risk of personal harm: risk-taking behavior and generosity. People who risk their lives in the service of another are naturally more likely to take greater risks and they also possess a great deal of compassion, kindness, empathy, and altruism.

In an article that appeared in a 2004 issue of American Psychologist, researchers Selwyn Becker and Alice Eagly suggested that heroism might also have a more self-serving purpose as a means to ensure status. In other words, sometimes engaging in self-sacrificing behavior can lead to long-term rewards.

In one small study conducted with 78 participants, researchers found that people who were willing to endure the pain of holding their hands in a tub of ice or being dunked in a tank of water were more likely to be judged as likable by the other participants. Not only did the others view these individuals more favorably, they also rewarded them by giving them much more of a pot of money amounting to $1,170 that the participants were allowed to divvy up in any way they wished.

Researchers have long known that both people and animals are more likely to help those to whom they are genetically related, a concept known as kin selection. By helping those who share our genes, we help ensure the likelihood that those genes will be passed on to future generations. In others cases, we help others with the expectation that someday they might help us in return, an idea known as reciprocal altruism.

But what about the kinds of altruism that don't hinge on helping relatives or expecting some type of payback? In such cases, situational, cultural, and personality variables can play pivotal roles. After people take heroic actions, they often claim that they don't see themselves as heroes; that they were simply doing what anyone in that situation would have done. In the face of immediate life and death situations, the power and immediacy of the situation can inspire some people to take action.

These same situational forces that galvanize some individuals to heroic acts can actually impede others from helping. When a crisis arises in the presence of many people, we often fall into a trap of inaction by assuming that someone else will offer assistance, a phenomenon known as the bystander effect. Because personal responsibility is diffused by the presence of others, we believe that someone else will take on the role of the hero.

Some people may also have personality traits that predispose them to behave in altruistic and heroic ways. Researchers have suggested that those who have a particular mind-set that leads them to behave confidently and morally in difficult situations tend to act immediately and unconsciously when an emergency occurs.

Are Heroes Born or Are They Made?

One of the biggest questions researchers face comes down to the age-old debate over nature versus nurture. Is heroism something we are born with, or is heroism something that can be learned?

"Some people argue humans are born good or born bad; I think that’s nonsense," explains Philip Zimbardo. "We are all born with this tremendous capacity to be anything, and we get shaped by our circumstances—by the family or the culture or the time period in which we happen to grow up, which are accidents of birth; whether we grow up in a war zone versus peace; if we grow up in poverty rather than prosperity."

So if heroism is something that can be cultivated, how exactly do we go about encouraging people to behave in heroic ways? In the second part of this article, we'll learn more about one program designed to foster altruism and heroism in young people.

NEXT: Continue reading to learn more about teaching heroism.

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