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Heroism as an expression of self-actualization and pinnacle social state is of fundamental interest to humanistic psychology and the field more broadly. The dynamic of having influential forces within human societal structures is a rather appealing notion for the general masses due to the fact that this offers a turning point in terms of interpersonal exchanges and serves as a standing element against physical and socially hierarchal belligerence. We as a society have come to identify such forces by labeling them “heroes” in order to create a sort of connection between the helper and the helped. Although heroes are made up of a number of skills and abilities that align with heroism, there are a number of elements such as social ascriptions of society, symbolism and moral standings that contribute to the making of a “hero”.

Heroism represents the ideal of citizens transforming civic virtue into the highest form of civic action, accepting either physical peril or social sacrifice. While implicit theories of heroism abound, surprisingly little theoretical or empirical work has been done to better understand the phenomenon. Toward this goal, a taxonomy of heroic subtypes has been set in order to create a starting point for theoretical establishment. We start by exploring three apparent paradoxes that surround heroism—the dueling impulses to elevate and negate heroic actors; the contrast between the public ascription of heroic status versus the interior decision to act heroically; and apparent similarities between altruism, bystander intervention and heroism that mask important differences between these phenomena. We assert that these seeming contradictions point to an unrecognized relationship between insufficient justification and the ascription of heroic status, providing more explanatory power than risk-type alone. The results of an empirical study are briefly presented to provide preliminary support to these arguments. Finally, several areas for future research and theoretical activity are briefly considered. These include the possibility that extension neglect may play a central role in public’s view of non-prototypical heroes; a critique of the positive psychology view that heroism is always a virtuous, prosocial activity; problems associated with retrospective study of heroes; the suggestion that injury or death (particularly in social sacrifice heroes) serves to resolve dissonance in favor of the heroic actor; and a consideration of how to foster heroic imagination.

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Heroism was gradually distinguished from theories of altruism, pro-social behavior, and risk-taking behavior (Franco et al., 2011), and empirical research demonstrated that the terms “heroes”, “leaders”, and “role models” are not synonymous in meaning (Kinsella, Ritchie, & Igou, 2015a, 2015b). However, while distinct, heroism necessarily overlaps with these topics in psychology and ideas in other fields. In a recent comprehensive overview of the psychological frameworks related to heroism, Franco and Zimbardo (2016) noted that heroism can be examined from pro-social perspectives, including leadership, grit, high-velocity improvisational action, altruism, time perspective, time perspective, and also, just as compellingly, from deviance-based perspectives, including risk taking, impulsivity, and psychopathy.

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Social ascription of heroic status

Heroes usually view their actions as the result of a flow of natural decisions, in an attempt to “take the next right action” (Franco, 2016) and do not view their actions as heroic (Worthington, 2007). In hind sight, heroes view their actions as something instinctual and not something to be labeled as “heroic”, however this status is ascribed by the will of the public. This process of conferral of the heroic mantle by the witnesses to the act, and by groups who learn about the act second hand remains poorly understood. Post hoc multivariate analysis of data from an initial study of lay perspectives of heroism gives some insight into this phenomenon (Franco, et al., 2011). Heroic subtypes were categorized to explore the relationship between physical and social risk, as well as justified and unjustified risk taking as possible predictors of social acknowledgement of heroism. The regression model found that despite the authors’ assertion that social risk was more strongly associated with the ascription of heroic status, explaining about 46% of the variance. Moreover, the conferred hero status was associated with individuals who take risks that are hardly justified. Unjustified risk explained an additional 9% of the variance. This implies that heroic actions are substantially controversial and only later come to be seen as heroic as observers contextualize the activity.

Balancing equity of society

Heroes serve as a scale in order to balance out different concepts, ideologies and positions in our community. The most primordial stance is the pitch of “Good versus Bad” and “Right versus Wrong”. The conflict between good and evil is one of the precepts of the Zoroastrian faith, first enshrined by Zoroaster over 3000 years ago. It is also one of the most common conventional themes in literature, and is sometimes considered to be one of universal parts of the human condition. There are several variations on this conflict, one being the battle between individuals or ideologies, with one side Good, the other Evil. Another variation is the inner struggle in characters (and by extension, humans in reality) between good and evil. The point in which “heroes” step into this picture is that they serve as a division of these two notions, collating with the “good” side and making it their mission to suppress the “bad” side and encourage others to do the same. The same thing goes for their positioning of “Right versus Wrong” where they choose to promote the “Right” principles and abolish the “Wrong”. The basis of this principality is illustrated in the infamous Chinese philosophy known as “Yin Yang”. The principle of Yin and Yang is a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy and culture in general dating from the third century BCE or even earlier. This principle is that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites, for example female-male, dark-light and old-young. The two opposites attract and complement each other and, as their symbol illustrates, each side has at its core an element of the other (represented by the small dots). Neither pole is superior to the other. As an increase in one brings a corresponding decrease in the other, a correct balance between the two poles must be reached in order to achieve harmony. Thus, our perception of heroes is a way of achieving this harmony and creating an ideal society for everyone to coexist in.

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Aspirational symbol

Heroes have a rather large influence in society because they serve as role models for people of all ages, gender, and educational level. A hero, per say, has different meanings to different people and this is due to the fact that the term varies contextually. A hero could be someone who stands for the rights of the people and upholds justice, a hero could be someone who serves as a beacon of motivation, a hero could be a personal savior and so on. However, there is no argument that no matter the context of the label, these heroes still act as role models for various individuals. For example, as stated before, heroes vary contextually in terms of the field being considered which is why we have different role models which enact their sphere of influence in different ways. In the field of science, most people would consider Albert Einstein to be their role model due to his abundant intelligence and multitude of scientific findings that have helped revolutionize the world of science and our society as a whole. In the field of sports, some people could find Serena Williams to be a role model and hero due to the fact that she is a champion in her field and she takes a stand for women of color to pursue their goals and not be afraid to reach for the top. In the field of politics and government, some people could consider Barack Obama to be their hero and role model for being the first president of color in America and for creating a path of peace and respect within the country. There are several examples of heroism due to the fact that heroism isn’t bound by the stereotypical definition of being a “superhero”, rather it promotes positivity and advancement in different aspects of life for numerous amounts of people. Moreover, heroes act as a source of motivation for people because they render a large contribution into helping our community and making sure our race advances in all aspects. In addition, heroes also serve as harbingers of justice and make it a mission to defend the innocent, which is built on their stance of “Right versus Wrong”. A very prominent example of the notion of justice is conceptualized by ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. In his philosophy Plato gives a prominent place to the idea of justice. Plato was highly dissatisfied with the prevailing degenerating conditions in Athens. The Athenian democracy was on the verge of ruin and was ultimately responsible for Socrates’s death. The amateur meddlesomeness and excessive individualism became main targets of Plato’s attack. This attack came in the form of the construction of an ideal society in which justice reigned supreme, since Plato believed justice to be the remedy for curing these evils. After criticizing the conventional theories of justice presented differently by Cephalus, Polymarchus, Thrasymachus and Glaucon, Plato gives us his own theory of justice according to which, individually, justice is a ‘human virtue’ that makes a person self-consistent and good; socially, justice is a social consciousness that makes a society internally harmonious and good. According to Plato, justice is a sort of specialization.

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In conclusion, I believe that heroes are built from a multitude of elements due to their variation of context. Heroes portray mainly elements of altruism, psychopathy and dynamism due to their irrational selflessness and risk-taking for the wellbeing of others and their way of leaving a mark on society that better enhances a peaceful environment for all the members of the community. It has been proved that over the years, through a variety of research, we have been able to investigate the psychological nature of heroism in terms of behavioral traits and stimuli for action; we are able to analyze the social branding of heroism, we are also able to distinguish the main roles of heroism in our society as a means to balance different notions such as “good vs bad” and “right vs wrong”. Heroes are a necessary force in our society, whether it is in the embodiment of an actual person or just the idea of heroism itself because it offers the world a fighting point as to not give in to forces that promote weakness and vulnerability.

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