The Psychology of Heroism, Courageous Patterns of Behavior

Where's the heroism in today's world? What defines the contemporary hero? In this article, we'll tell you.
The Psychology of Heroism, Courageous Patterns of Behavior

Last update: 21 September, 2021

Acts of heroism often have the power to overwhelm you. As a matter of fact, they restore your faith in the human species. At the same time, they remind you of the power of transcending individuality. However, sometimes, it’s not so easy to define these acts of heroism and what actually characterizes contemporary heroes.

In the mythology of most societies, the hero is someone special who embodies the most cherished values of their culture. In fact, they’re idealized models of the human being and serve as an example for each individual community. The idea of heroism also conjures up a literary schema in which someone usually discovers that they possess exceptional abilities.

However, in reality, the hero is someone who stands out for having carried out an extraordinary feat that requires courage. In fact, it usually involves them exposing themselves to danger in order to rescue someone from a catastrophic situation.

“The bravest sight in the world is to see a man struggling against adversity.”


Heroism, an imprecise concept

Arthur Ashe, a professional athlete, defined heroism in the following terms: “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 ”.

The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) is a non-profit organization that seeks to promote the heroism of people in everyday life. For this organization, heroism not only implies a behavior of extreme generosity , but also an extremely high moral value.

Person helping another

The point of view of psychology

Philip Zimbardo is perhaps the most iconic psychologist in the field of social psychology. For him, heroism  is defined as a constant concern for those in need. He considers that the main motivation of these exceptional beings lies in their moral principles. To the extent that they don’t mind risking their own lives to help others.

Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals, professors of psychology at the University of Richmond, carried out several studies. They found, after several polls, that heroes tend to be perceived as moral and competent people.

Similarly, they were able to determine that, according to this perception, the qualities that distinguish a hero are intelligence, strength, endurance, selflessness, charisma, reliability, and inspiration. Indeed, as a rule, people believe that these are the characteristics that essentially define the hero.

From prototype to concept

Psychologists Elaine L. Kinsella, Timothy D. Ritchie, and Eric R. Igou are the authors of several articles and a book on the subject of heroism. In their works, they observed that there’s no definition as such for the term hero or heroism. However, what does exist is a prototype defined from several characteristics. These are courage, integrity, honesty, protectiveness, altruism, sacrifice, determination, saviorship, as well as being useful and inspirational.

Finally, for the humanistic psychologist Frank H. Farley, there are several types of heroes. In this sense, the variable “ sacrifice involved ” is considered the main one to determine the category to which each hero belongs.

Farley claims that you can be a hero with a capital “H” or a hero with a lowercase “h”.

  • Heroes with a capital letter would be those capable of negotiating with risk correctly in situations where it’s important.
  • Heroes with a small letter practice heroism as a philosophy of life in which they add little by little to the lives of others. They take care of minor details and are aware that with the smallest gesture they can make others feel better.
Man trying to help a woman

The factors of heroism

Farley points out that there are two underlying factors that accompany every act of heroism. On the one hand. there’s the willingness to take risks. On the other, it’s the generous act itself. These people put their resources at the service of others, even though at times this may go against their “more selfish” interests.

M ost of the higher species are predisposed to help their relatives. This concept is called “parental selection” and has to do with the survival of that particular group. In humans, many sympathize with their peers, with the expectation that in the future they’ll return the favor. This is known by the name of “reciprocal altruism.”

Finally, there would be a modality called “situational”, in which the circumstances of the moment require immediate intervention. It could be said that it’s a reflex reaction to an eventuality. This is the one most akin to heroism.

In this case, there’s no family link and the hero’s response is due to aspects that have to do with their personality, their culture, and the situation. When asked why they put themselves in danger to help someone else, they often downplay their action. In fact, they tend to understand their behavior as natural, and that they’ve responded in the way they have in accordance with the maxim of Kantian ethics: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Pedrosa, J. M. (2003). La lógica de lo heroico: mito, épica, cuento, cine, deporte…(modelos narratológicos y teorías de la cultura). Los mitos, los héroes, 37-63.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.