A hero by any other name…

Robert MacRory-Crowley and Kevin O’Malley on ‘heroism science’, ahead of its third biennial conference at the University of Limerick.

From Hercules slaying the Nemean Lion, Joan of Arc rousing France or Nelson Mandela fighting apartheid, heroes have captured imaginations and animated movements for millennia. But what makes a hero and how do we recognise them? The emerging field of ‘heroism science’ is on a quest to find out.

Across cultures and generations, heroic stories have persisted. A hero’s struggles can call to action or prompt introspection; they can protect against the vicissitudes of life or inspire the building of a space where those threats are not present. We repeat them to ourselves, we reflect, we share such stories from the fireside to the website. Yet critics, philosophers and scholars still struggle to agree on the most basic of questions: what is a hero?

The growing field of ‘heroism science’ (Allison & Goethals, 2017; Efthimiou & Alison, 2018) is looking to provide answers. 

From the known to the unknown, and back

Until recently, the study of heroes was predominantly the domain of literature and sociological research, with one of the most influential descriptions of the (mythical) hero coming from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell likened the emergence of heroes to a journey from the world of the known into the realm of the unknown. The prospective hero undertakes a task or set of tasks that are ostensibly beyond their capacity, and undergoes a form of learning and personal growth which culminates in a return to the known world as a changed person; wiser, stronger and more thoughtful than before.

Consider Jason and the Argonauts and their voyage for the Golden Fleece: Jason answers the call to adventure by accepting his uncle Pelias’ challenge to retrieve the Fleece. He constructs the Argo and travels to Colchis, overcoming anthropomorphised clashing rocks, the harpies, sirens and direct intervention by the gods themselves, before returning home triumphantly to defeat Pelias the usurper. This story-form closely matches Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’; it’s a useful outline for myths, legends and epic poems. Campbell identifies necessary prerequisites for heroic classification, e.g. struggle (internal and external), personal growth and perseverance.

However, these challenges alone neither make a hero nor capture the personal meaning of heroism for many. The ubiquity of heroes, alongside the myriad colloquial meanings associated with the term, makes moving off the pages of a book and actually operationalising heroism a significant challenge for those interested in researching it. The hero’s journey might account for fictional heroes and even antiheroes, like Batman or The Punisher, yet it does not sufficiently capture the more complex and mature themes within some narratives. Similarly, it doesn’t account for the ‘spur of the moment’ hero – one who takes quick (and possibly uncharacteristic) action to save a drowning swimmer or who risks their life pushing a stranger out of the way of a speeding car.

In an attempt to delineate factual, as opposed to fictional, heroes further, several authors and commentators have approached heroes as a distinct category of social actors (Campbell, 1949; McEvoy & Erickson, 1981; Pearson, 1986). Klapp (1954) differentiates between heroes, villains and fools from a sociological perspective by creating a typology theory based on actors’ social function. He defines heroes as ‘personages, real or imaginary, who are admired because they stand out from others by supposed unusual merits or attainments. Within this perspective, heroes are moral exemplars earning their elevated status through incredible feats and serving as the apotheosis of a given society’s social norms and values. This provides a useful typology of heroes (as ‘Clever’, ‘Questing’, ‘Avenging’ etc.) as well as offering insight into their social functions. It also begins to address the role of subjectivity in how people recognise heroes; the perennial ‘One person’s terrorist…’. However, it focuses heavily on personal skill and neglects the overlap and contrast between different heroes that do not fall readily into distinct categories. Klapp acknowledges mythical figures are the best examples of the various types he suggests, yet the famous Odysseus could be classified as the ‘Clever’, ‘Quest’, ‘Avenger’ or ‘Culture’ hero depending on what point of the Odyssey you chose to focus on.  

Sacrifice and risk

Similarly, empirical approaches to heroism have struggled to capture the concept’s range and breadth. Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford Prison Experiment fame, initially defined a hero as a person who ‘knowingly and voluntarily, acts for the good of one or more people at significant risk to the self, without being motivated by reward’ (Zimbardo, 2007). In later work (Franco et al., 2011), he and colleagues expanded this definition to four categories based on levels of sacrifice and risk. Firstly, there are people saving others from physical peril with no duty to do so. Think of innocent bystanders wrestling guns away from robbers or strangers diving in front of bullets intended for another. Secondly, we have those who protect others from physical peril when they have a duty to do so: the warrior distracting the enemy so their friends can escape, the police officer wounded while protecting their partner or the firefighter rescuing victims from burning wreckage. Moving away from physical peril, the researchers acknowledge social heroes; those who earn their heroism via sacrifice as opposed to risk (although the two may overlap). Social heroes are defined by their opposition as opposed to implied duty. There are heroes that defy social systems, for instance Martin Luther King, Malala Yousesai or Emmeline Pankhurst, and heroes that defy social reality, such as Albert Einstein redefining physics, Amelia Earhart attempting to cross the Atlantic or Serena Williams dominating tennis with 23 Grand Slams.

Akin to the previous theories, these hero types illustrate elements of heroism – facing danger, protecting others and persevering – but the taxonomy cannot grasp the personal and malleable nature of heroism. Where do we put the people who have not completed monumental tasks nor undertaken great physical risks? Are the study participants that named their parents, coaches or teachers as ‘heroes’ wrong? While this classification provides broad groups to fit possible heroes into, it still cannot capture the personal, ‘Little H’, nature of heroism (Farley, 2012). Two of the authors, Zimbardo and Franco, suggest in another piece that heroic behaviour is often banal and anyone is capable of it, yet their taxonomy struggles to include these individuals (Franco & Zimbardo, 2006).

Heroic leaders

Approaching the problem from a different angle, a sizable body of empirical work unpacks the complexity of heroism by distinguishing heroes from other prosocial actors (Franco et al., 2011; Kinsella et al., 2015a, 2015b) and exploring different forms of heroic behaviour/heroism (e.g. Eagly & Becker, 2005) to identify commonalities (Franco et al., 2011; Allison & Goethals, 2011). Importantly, across domains, heroes differ significantly from other prominent social groups. For example, Kinsella and colleagues demonstrated that heroes are perceived differently from social actors such as role models and leaders. Heroes were perceived as substantially more altruistic, compassionate, courageous, selfless, protective and morally integrous, as well as more likely to save others and sacrifice themselves. Similarly, North et al. (2005) found that individuals distinguish between heroes and celebrities in terms of emotional responses and moral character. Heroes elicited stronger emotional connections and were viewed as moral exemplars more than celebrities. Finally, Allison and Goethals (2013) suggested ‘heroic leadership’ as the peak form of leadership, distinguishable from other forms by the magnitude and moral character of a leader’s influence. Heroic leaders stand above and apart from other leaders by impacting our world in ways previously unimagined.

The heroic prototype

While this body of work has led to promising insights, helping to demarcate heroism from related constructs, the true nature of heroism remains elusive. Much of the research focuses on differences, showing us what heroes are not, as opposed to zeroing in on what they are. To tap into the core of heroism, categorical definitions and typologies remain too restrictive to encapsulate lay theories, whereas equivocal literary conceptualisations do not provide the precision required for scientific research.

A possible solution to these issues is the prototype approach adopted by Kinsella et al. (2015). Prototype approaches categorise constructs by their most representative examples and features (Rosch, 1978), preserving rigour through clear coherent detail and providing coverage by revealing richness rather than concealing it (Smith & Medin, 1981; Gregg et al., 2008). This approach provides central and peripheral features to describe heroism, where identification with more features indicates a more prototypical example of heroic behaviour.

Using this approach, over the course of several studies, Kinsella et al. (2015) identified 26 hero features, with central aspects including bravery, moral integrity, protection and self-sacrifice, similar to features we encountered above. However, this is a data-driven perspective, and we would argue that the prototype method accounts for viewpoints at personal and group levels, while retaining the objectivity and controlled approach we’ll need to advance this field.

Heroes – an untapped tool?

A strong and stable theoretical foundation means researchers can begin examining heroes’ functions, utilities and applications within everyday life. Organisations such as the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) are already trying to apply such research to inspire and prepare people for heroic action. HIP focuses on training heroic responses to encourage people to be kinder, more prosocial and more effective in challenging situations. In this case, the 26 hero features could be used to guide heroic development by providing a basis for translating heroic behaviour into accessible terms – identifying how and why actions are heroic and laying a roadmap for personal growth.

Similarly, research on behavioural interventions indicates that using heroes could improve intervention efficacy (Ylvisaker et al., 2008). Using the features to frame behaviour change and identify inspirational individuals could lead to improved retention rates and behavioural outcomes. Heroes are universal, so heroism research has a worldwide appeal with widespread applications for day-to-day living. As a source of encouragement and motivation for many, heroes are an untapped tool. The potential for imaginative projects is immeasurable – from specifying the precise nature of heroism, including any gendered aspects, to delving into the perceptual differences between ‘big’ and ‘little’ heroism.

If you enjoyed what you’ve read and are interested in advancing heroism research further, you’re in luck! The Third Biennial Heroism Science Conference will take place online.


-       Robert MacRory-Crowley is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick. [email protected]

-       Kevin O’Malley is at the University of Limerick, where he is an IRC funded research council PhD candidate.

Find more on heroes (and villains!) in our archive.

Editor's note: Originally published online on 12 December 2019. 


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