Type “hero personality” into any search engine, and you’ll find an abundance of opinions about the defining characteristics of heroes. Until recently, those opinions were all we had. There just hadn’t been much in the way of formal research on the topic.
But now social scientists are uncovering some clues about the heroic personality. My colleague Greg Smith and I recently conducted a study in which we had several students watch dozens of the greatest movies of all time. Half were chosen from the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 most critically-acclaimed movies; the other half were selected from among those that had earned the highest box-office revenues of all time.
Our students independently coded the degree to which the hero of each movie possessed each of the five traits in The Big Five model, which describes the five major dimensions of human personality. The five trait categories in the Big Five are: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
The results of our study revealed the personality profile of a hero:
These five traits of cinematic heroes are remarkably consistent with other research we’ve done on the characteristics of real-world heroes. We’ve found evidence for The Great Eight traits in a heroic personality, which include the traits: smart, strong, selfless, resilient, reliable, charismatic, caring, and inspiring. Note that three of the Great Eight traits of heroes—smart, reliable, and caring—correspond nicely to three of the Big Five traits of heroes—openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness.
Research suggests that as we get older, we may naturally acquire personality characteristics that fit the profile of this heroic personality. For example, compared with younger adults, older people tend to show increased levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness, along with decreased levels of neuroticism. Women may be more primed toward heroism, at least certain types of heroism, because they score higher than men on the traits of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
Interestingly, there may be a dark side to the heroic personality. Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University, has uncovered a psychopathic trait associated with heroism called fearless dominance. Fearlessly dominant people are bold risk-takers who enjoy dominating social situations. This may sound ominous, but many U.S. presidents have relied on fearless dominance to make tough, courageous decisions.
Lilienfeld also found that heroes may have higher levels of impulsivity and aggressiveness. This would appear to be inconsistent with our discovery that heroes are warm, agreeable people. Heroism that carries the risk of fast, physical altercation may be more conducive to one personality type, while heroism that calls for nurturant mentoring may attract another personality type.
Clearly, more research is needed to sort out the complexities of the heroic personality. But if there is one thing we are certain about in our research to date, it is that human beings are psychologically equipped to become heroes in both deeds and dispositions. All of us can make a conscious effort to acquire the characteristics of heroes. With self-awareness, we can cultivate our natural human tendencies to be compassionate, dutiful, and open to helping those in need.
Cherry, K. (2012). The psychology of heroism.
Pappas, S. (2013). Heroism: The bright side of psychopathy?
Smith, G., & Allison, S. T. (2014). Reel heroes: Volume 1: Two Hero Experts Critique the Movies. Agile Writer Press