What makes a hero? Is there a hero gene that makes certain people predisposed to acts of bravery? What about everyday heroes – people whose day-to-day duties require constant acts of self-sacrifice and altruism? Do they share common traits? Is gender an element of heroism? Research has found that people who carry out singular acts of heroism or bravery, like pulling an injured person away from an oncoming train, are not that different from everyone else. Everyday heroes, however, do share common characteristics. In a world that needs heroes more than ever, do we all have an inner hero capable of performing extraordinary deeds?
Does gender make a difference?
Men have traditionally held more roles in situations involving high risk and immediacy but when broader, prosocial situations are analyzed – such as helping people in danger due to oppression or injustice, donating a kidney to a family member, or volunteering for Doctors Without Borders – women are just as likely or more so than men to play an active role.
Irena Sendler is an excellent example of one of these quiet heroes. A Polish humanitarian, social worker, and nurse who served in the Polish resistance during World War II, she was responsible for smuggling thousands of Jewish children out of German-occupied Warsaw and providing them with false identification and shelter with willing families, saving them from the Holocaust. At the time, any help provided to Jews was punishable by death, to the rescuer and their family.
What makes a hero?
Lots of research has been done on why people do bad things, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about what makes someone put their personal safety or wellbeing aside to perform a heroic act. Nor does everyone agree on what makes a hero.
Scientists who study heroism define a hero as a person who performs altruistic actions that benefit others and which involve some sort of personal risk or sacrifice but do not involve compensation. For many people, however, a hero is simply someone worthy of admiration for their achievements or a person who shows great courage. When we look beyond the heroic deeds that make headlines, there are a lot more heroes out there than meets the eye.
So, to encourage heroism, we have to start by recognizing the heroes among us. Not only the admirable individuals who pull someone out of a burning building but the people who are willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others. In other words, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need, and the willingness to act despite personal risk or discomfort.
The key traits found in heroes
There is no definitive list of characteristics found in heroes but most psychological studies on the subject identify the following characteristics as common personal traits of heroes:
- Moral integrity
Teaching how to be a hero
American psychologist Philip Zimbardo believes that heroism can be taught and has designed a program aimed at young people: the Heroic Imagination Project. Zimbardo is known for the famous Stanford prison experiment, a study that demonstrated how people are heavily influenced by their surroundings and by social pressure when choosing “good” or “bad” behavior. The programs are designed to teach the idea that heroism is not something reserved for rare individuals who do something extraordinary, but a mindset that can be fostered in anyone. As the saying goes, not all heroes wear capes.
The four-week program teaches adolescents about human behavior in extreme or dangerous situations and about building empathy. Analysis of what makes a hero is also part of the program. Finally, students are asked to put what they learn into practice by looking for opportunities each day to help another person.
According to Zimbardo, we should expel the myth of heroes as demigods, “A hero is just an ordinary person who does something extraordinary”.
International Women’s Day
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we take a look in this video at three very special young women, Deyna, Leicy, and Estefanía, who demonstrate many of the characteristics common among heroes such as determination, courage, vision, and self-sacrifice. As members of Madrid’s Atlético women’s professional soccer team, not only do they have what it takes to pursue their dreams but to show the world what it means to be a hero.
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