5 MIN READ | Positive Psychology

Professor Nigel MacLennan

Heroism – What Is It and What’s Behind It?

Cite This
Professor Nigel MacLennan, (2021, September 6). Heroism – What Is It and What’s Behind It?. Psychreg on Positive Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/heroism-what-is-it/
Reading Time: 5 minutes

You can listen to the audio version of this article.


When you think of heroes, what comes to mind? Military heroes come to the fore, in times of conflict.  

What are military heroes? Those who stand up for, defend or help others in the face of adversity, hostility, and personal risk. 

There are many other categories of heroes. For now, let’s adopt that as a wider working definition of heroism, and ask: what are the categories and contexts in which heroism takes place? Almost any context has its hero/ines. Let’s list a few with examples, to see whether our working definition holds up. 

  • Intellectual heroes. Those who stand up for, defend or help others in the face of adversity, hostility, and personal risk to advance human understanding. Does that fit: Galileo Galilei? Baruch Spinoza? Doris Lessing?
  • Scientific heroes. Those who stand up for, defend or help others in the face of adversity, hostility, and personal risk to advance science. Does that fit: Marie Curie? Alexander Fleming? Katherine Johnson? Charles Darwin?
  • Sporting heroes. Those who stand up for, defend or help others in the face of adversity, hostility, and personal risk to advance sporting performance. Does that fit: Lewis Hamilton? Martina Navratilova? Tanni Grey-Thompson?
  • Moral and ethical heroes. Those who stand up for, defend or help others in the face of adversity, hostility, and personal risk to advance moral and ethical standards. Does that fit: Jonathan Taylor? Sonia Appleby? ‘John Doe’ (Panama Papers)? Gordon Brown? Joan of Arc?
  • Business heroes. Those who stand up for, defend or help others in the face of adversity, hostility, and personal risk to advance provision of value to others. Does that fit: Anita Roddick? Oprah Winfrey? Richard Branson?

How does our working definition of a hero stand up? Did each of the persons listed face adversity and hostility, and personal risk? Did they stand up for, defend, or help others? I think so, what do you think?

Back to our opening question: when you think of heroes, what comes to mind? Possibly for most people it is military, sporting, business, and intellectual heroes. For others, moral and ethical heroics come to mind. In the UK, we have the national asset, the NHS, because of a handful of morally heroic people. We have free education by way of the same kind of people. We have democracy by the same benefactors.

Almost everything in life that can or needs to be improved, will be addressed because some heroic people will stand up for, defend or help others in the face of adversity, hostility, and personal risk.

Most of life’s societally caused problems, such as allowing corruption to go unchallenged, will only be addressed by heroic people. People who stand up when others don’t.

Heroic acts are happening all over the world as you read, more will happen soon; most, you will never know about. The martial artist who, this week, will prevent a murder by a gang of thugs by physically intervening. Neither will you know the names of the NHS staff who will repeatedly risk death by treating those with potentially fatal diseases. Or of the fire officer who will run into a burning building to save strangers.

Some acts of heroism come to public attention: the singer who mobilised the world to save starving people – Bob Geldoff. The politician who organises the write-off of crippling debt to some developing countries – Gordon Brown. The civil rights activist who ended segregation – Rosa Parks. The lawyer who ended apartheid and presided over a peaceful transfer of power– Nelson Mandela. Some heroes who have changed the world are unsung (as you will see in a list coming up). Some are even unappreciated. Many are reviled, even after the truth of their deeds is told.

Regardless of country, what is behind the world changing actions of the heroic? What causes the heroism of people like: Rosa Parks, José Rizal, Florence Nightingale, Alexander Fleming, Greta Thunberg, Martin Luther King, Marie Curie, El Cid, Emmeline Pankhurst, Peter Tatchell, Ada Lovelace, Charles Dickens, Angela Burdett-Coutts, George Washington, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wallace, Diana Spencer, Nelson Mandela,  Mother Teresa, Harvey Milk, Rachel Levine, Elliot Page, Phra Naret?

Are they ‘special’, or can anyone take the actions of a hero? Let’s explore.

Why do they step forward when so many others who could have, didn’t? What are their mindsets?  How do they behave? What are their inner drives? Who can be a hero? When can they be heroic? What types of hero are there?

‘Some people are born great; others have greatness thrust upon them.’ What might that mean in this context? Perhaps that some people do not choose to be heroic; it arises out of circumstance.

Does circumstance make for heroism? That seems unlikely, since the circumstances facing all the above people were also present for countless numbers of their contemporaries.

Why did our hero stand up and act while almost all others did nothing, or worse, sat down, or even worse still: were the cause of the problem the hero addressed?

Do heroic people have different characteristics? That question is problematic: it implies that whatever ‘characteristics’ are, they are fixed. Are you the same person in all contexts? Few are.

Despite the problems, it might get the ball rolling to list some of the ‘characteristics’ that researchers have linked to heroism. They seem to fall into clusters:

  • Bravery and courage
  • Conviction, determination, and strength
  • Helpful, selfless, protective, and self-sacrifice
  • Honesty and moral integrity
  • Above all comes action.

What drives heroic people to act? Most of us are driven by the desire to feel good, so why would the soon-to-be classed as heroic put themselves in harm’s way? Is there something in them that would make them feel bad if they did as most others do: nothing. Is their moral integrity so strong that the only way they can keep their self-respect is to act? Are their values such that not acting would be an assault on their self-esteem? Would that assault bring greater harm and pain than the personal risk to which they surely know they are about to subject themselves, when they act?

Here is my best explanation. In their motivational calculus, heroic people compare two pain/pleasure scenarios and make a decision. For example: is the anticipated pain of doing something, (in the face of adversity, hostility, and personal harm), less than the projected pain of doing nothing and then not being able to live with themselves?

What drives that type of decision-making? The values they hold and the strength with which those values are held. Heroic people hold a variety of values, as per the rest of the population. Their values are held more dearly and more fully, and that drives them to take action, and persist, when others either do nothing or fall by the wayside. People we describe as heroic believe in what they are doing with such intensity, that it is not a matter of if they act, merely a choice of how.

Heroism – what is it, and what’s behind it?  More work will be required to create a stronger definition of what it is; you have a working definition to get you started if that is what you choose.

What’s behind heroism? Values and the strength by which they are held. For heroic people gripped by such strong values, maybe their heroism is less choice and more necessity. Either way, all of our lives are better because of such people. Indeed, almost all past, present and future progress depends on them.


Professor Nigel MacLennan runs PsyPerform, a leadership coaching practice. He is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.


Disclaimer: Psychreg is mainly for information purposes only. Materials on this website are not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on this website. Read our full disclaimer here

Copy link