It would be nice to think that we are all capable of great moral courage, that inside even the most unassuming person is a hero waiting to spring forth. It would be nice, but is it true?
It depends on how you define hero, according to a paper published in the Journal of Personality. The authors interviewed 50 people who had been given an award for heroism along with a control group of 50 award-less folks. The idea was to see whether there is a trait or set of traits that is common to people who won the heroism award and whether those traits are lacking in those of us whose only trophy features a little gold guy bowling.
A note about the heroes: Half of them had been given an award for one-time moral bravery, like saving a stranger from a burning house, while the other half had been given an award for long-term service, like volunteering in a hospital. This turns out to be a crucial distinction because, according to the study, many of those who had committed a single heroic act tended not to be much different from the control group. For instance, here’s what a guy who really did save someone from a burning building had to say:
… he was another human being and if there was a chance of helping him, then, you know, what the heck, why not? That was really it, nothing, not a lot of premeditation; when something like that happens, you run and grab things as quick as you can.
Commendable, for sure, but not exactly a fleshed-out philosophy. And personality tests showed this person, whom the article calls Carl, to be unremarkable. However, those who had demonstrated moral bravery over a long period of time—like the nurse who regularly comforted grieving families after they lost a loved one—scored unusually high on personality traits like nurturance. Others had firm principles that they tried to live by, like “do one good deed daily” and “live a life that has some meaning.”
The upshot is that while most of us are capable of one-time heroic actions, the people who are consistently heroic appear to have either some special personality ingredients or are guided by a philosophy that requires them to behave heroically. What this study, and previous studies, failed to find was a single characteristic that all extraordinarily moral people share. There is no hero gene.
Of course defining heroism is made tougher by how loosely the term is used. You can be a guitar hero by playing a video game. According to an article I saw, making your own popsicles qualifies you to be a “mom hero.” If a lifetime of moral bravery and freezing flavored water receive the same label then maybe it’s the word itself that needs saving.
(The full paper, “Varieties of Moral Personality: Beyond the Banality of Heroism,” is not available for free, but you can read the abstract here. The authors are Lawrence J. Walker, Jeremy A. Frimer, and William L. Dunlop.)Return to Top