Anyone who does anything remotely positive seems to get labeled a hero in the media lately.
They are undoubtedly great people, but the word hero has long been reserved for someone who does something extraordinary.
The qualities of a hero must arouse admiration or even awe.
The word hero derives from the ancient Greek word heros, which held a meaning related to protecting people.
These ancient roots still matter today, although the definition of a hero has evolved in modern times.
- What is a True Hero?
- 9 Characteristics of a Hero
- Examples of a True Hero
- The Psychology of Heroism
- How You Can Develop Hero Traits
What is a True Hero?
A hero's actions must, by definition, go beyond what most people would do.
Ancient literature called people with supernatural abilities heroes because they were born of a god and a human.
Heroes had great strength, like Hercules, or protection from wounds, like Achilles.
Scholars note that these ancient heroic stories featured men who wanted glory.
People or societies might have sometimes benefited from their heroic deeds, but that was not what motivated ancient heroes.
The modern traits of a hero differ on two points. The modern hero is purely mortal without any notion of divine parentage.
Also, the modern hero must act for the purpose of helping others.
9 Characteristics of a Hero
You won't find just one answer to the question, “What makes someone a hero?”
Psychologists have begun to study the traits that make a hero. A 2009 study initially published in Psychological Reports found that people who exhibited heroic qualities had high confidence in their abilities.
They were generally competent people who believed themselves capable of succeeding even when the odds were against them. You don't have to spend much time looking at heroes to see that they are complex people.
They share some or all of the following traits frequently used to describe a hero.
Heroes draw strength from believing that their ideals have merit. They see their ideals as a force for good in the world. They will stand up for their ideals in the face of criticism, personal loss, and even physical danger.
Idealism generally goes hand in hand with possessing a strong moral code. A deep sense of morality may drive a hero to take action because not taking action would be immoral.
Of course, you expect a hero to be courageous. Courage is one of the top qualities of a hero that people recognize. This characteristic does not merely mean being fearless.
It more accurately means acting fearless even when being afraid. A courageous person sees that a situation is dangerous or impossible but chooses to overcome fear and try anyway.
Consider the historical example of Harriet Tubman, who made 20 expeditions into the slave-holding Southern United States to smuggle slaves to free areas. Federal law at the time authorized harsh penalties for people aiding escaped slaves. She even had a bounty on her head of $40,000.
She must have indeed feared capture but pursued her goal of freeing slaves anyway. Her idealism that human bondage was immoral motivated her as well.
3. Great Capacity for Empathy
The qualities of a hero include caring about other people. They feel the distress of others and want to help them. This capacity is called empathy. It goes beyond sympathy, which is understanding how others might feel. When you're empathetic, you directly experience the emotions of those in trouble.
Dr. Georges Bwelle of Cameroon told CNN that he wanted to reduce people's pain and make them laugh when asked why he provided free medical care in his native country. Dr. Bwelle is an example of an empathetic person who's unwilling to stand by when others suffer.
When you read heartwarming interviews with real-life heroes, they almost always tell the media that being a hero never crossed their minds. They say something along the lines of “I just did what needed to be done.” This is humility. They do not seek glory or awards, or any compensation.
Even the humble, however, can show great courage. In 2013, 69-year-old William Ayotte of Manitoba, Canada, attacked a polar bear with a shovel because it mauled a woman outside his home.
He bashed the 275-pound animal in the eye with the shovel. The bear dropped the woman and then attacked him. His fast decision to attack saved the woman from certain death. Another neighbor managed to scare the bear away. Ayotte later said that he doesn’t see himself as a hero.
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Sometimes heroes are convinced that they have something important to contribute to the betterment of humanity. An unmovable sense of conviction can give someone the strength to do something extraordinary.
A scientist experimenting on himself may not be your first thought when asked to describe a hero. However, the results of such a dangerous act ultimately benefited humanity in the case of Dr. Barry Marshall of Australia. During his research with pathologist Dr. Robin Warren, Marshall learned that a bacterial infection caused stomach ulcers and not simply stress as the medical community believed.
He tried to tell the medical community that antibiotics could cure ulcers, which are painful and sometimes fatal. His experiments on mice, however, did not produce clear evidence. When no one would believe him, he chose to drink a bacterial liquid and give himself a stomach ulcer, which he cured with antibiotics.
His conviction gave him the courage to endanger himself. His decision subsequently revolutionized ulcer treatment and saved people from misery and death.
Heroes see situations for what they are. They do not lie to themselves or others about what is going on. They do not shrug off slavery because it is legal. They do not accept that women should not vote because that's what society believes.
When William Ayotte saw the polar bear attacking a woman, he told himself, “If I don't do anything, she's not going to make it.” In it's simplest form, heroism comes down to making the choice to deal with reality.
People sometimes choose to act heroically when they realize they have the physical strength to do good. Pulling someone from floodwaters takes physical strength. Not everyone can do it, and not everyone who can do it does do it, but a hero will.
Of course, strength is not just about muscles. All heroes require emotional strength. A man who pulls people from a burning car needs the mental strength to place himself in harm's way. Many heroes face great adversity for many years as they pursue their prosocial goals.
To nurture means that you put effort into helping someone else live and thrive. A hero wants to make it possible for other people to succeed.
Nurturing life extends to the natural world as well. Environmental hero, Marilyn Baptiste of Canada, rallied her indigenous community three times to defeat a mining company that would have destroyed a lake that supported her people's livelihood.
Environmental campaigners worldwide often face harassment and murder for their efforts to preserve natural resources that sustain communities. Cattle ranchers killed Chico Mendes of Brazil, who fought to save the rain forest. He died a hero.
Activists, doctors, and scientists who devote their lives to just causes must possess resilience. This is one of the most important traits of a hero, especially for those whose heroism consumes their lives. They must recover from defeats and keep going.
Marilyn Baptiste surely knew many setbacks and betrayals while fighting a proposed mine three times, but she always returned to fight the good fight.
Examples of a True Hero
It may happen in a moment of crisis, such as when Lenny Skutnik famously jumped into the icy waters of the Potomac River in Washington D.C. and saved a woman. She had been about to drown after escaping an airplane that had crashed into a bridge.
The strong desire to save a life motivated the hero to swim out to her. Not everyone on the shore jumped in the water, but he did.
Another type of modern hero accepts ongoing sacrifice and risk in the pursuit of a positive goal. The famous suffragette Alice Paul endured physical attacks and harassment while picketing the White House alongside her allies.
She went to prison for protesting the government. In prison, she organized a hunger strike to continue to promote voting rights for women despite losing her freedom and suffering abuse.
Modern examples like these illustrate that a hero:
- Rises to the occasion
- Disregards personal safety
- Wants to benefit others
- Does not accept being helpless
The Psychology of Heroism
What types of people grow up to be heroes?
Courage, resilience, and compassion are common traits among valiant actors. Heroes also exhibit a heightened degree of empathy, which makes sense, as they're highly attuned and motivated by others' needs, often prioritizing them over their own well-being.
But personal attributes aren't the only contributing factor when defining heroism. Situational, social, and cultural factors also play a role, and they're not always purely altruistic.
For example, some would-be heroes may be motivated to go above and beyond when people are watching due to the increased possibility of widespread admiration and praise.
Urgency and association also have a significant impact. For instance, someone who loves their pets like children may find the courage to run into a burning building to save them.
Several studies suggest that individuals who perform incredible feats in service of others slip into a “flow state,” meaning their body and mind are in perfect communion, resulting in intense focus and enhanced ability.
All that said, heroism is a bit of a psychological anomaly and presents on a spectrum — like many personality categories.
Dr. Frank Farley explains the phenomenon by distinguishing between small-h and big-H heroism. Here's how he defines the two.
- Big-H Heroism: Farley associates big-H heroism with substantial risk, including imprisonment, injury, or even death. In some cases, their valor is monumental enough to change the course of history. People like Rosa Parks, the unknown Tiananmen Square protestor, and Witold Pilecki fall into this category.
- Small-h Heroism: Farley uses Fred Rogers, from Mister Rogers's Neighborhood, as an exemplar of “everyday heroism.” These folks deeply believe in “helping others, doing good deeds, showing kindness, etc., where serious harm or major consequences are not usually a result.”
How You Can Develop Hero Traits
Is heroism something you're born with, or can it be developed? In his article, “What Makes a Hero,” Philip Zimbardo argues for the latter and advocates teaching “heroic imagination.” But how?
Research shows that fostering certain behaviors and traits may strengthen “heroic instincts.” Let's look at what those are.
Respect and Compassion for Strangers
Individuals who are more open to and respectful of strangers tend to be more heroic. Why? Because they're less likely to be hamstrung by a subconscious indifference to people different from themselves.
Parents should, of course, teach their kids about “stranger danger.” However, developing a reverence for all living things can increase one's capacity for heroism.
Vigilance and Fortitude
There's a mental fitness element to heroism.
Specifically, most are hyper-aware of their surroundings, allowing them to act quickly and appropriately. Sometimes it's instinctual; other times, it's studied.
Heroes also need emotional fortitude to forge through harrowing situations and circumstances.
Honesty and Confidence
Though some acts of heroism are semi-rooted in the potential for personal adulation, most people who demonstrate impressive bravery are unfailingly honest.
This may be a symptom of true confidence, as people with it have usually dissected themselves, tackled their shadow selves, and developed a healthy sense of humility. When folks have done “the work,” they're refreshingly honest with themselves and others. Plus, they're typically more motivated to lend helping hands because they understand the universality of pain and struggle.
Heroes value “we” over “me.” So if you want to enhance your “hero quotient,” learning to love the beauty of community — both micro and macro — is vital. People who believe “it takes a village” are usually more willing to stick their necks out for fellow humans.
Heroes show us how to take care of each other, whether through a one-time act of bravery or a lifetime of fighting for the greater good.
When life tests you, the good examples set by heroes set the standard for how to respond.
Heroes also inspire people to lead productive lives helping those around them. Their successes give more people the courage to do what needs to be done.
Even in failure, heroes can show people that the struggle was worth the sacrifice. No one looks up to people who never tried to make things better. No one will even remember them.
Although the modern hero embraces humility, the ancient notion of glory remains intact. The glory comes from leading others to the high road even when the journey is difficult.