Why Everyone Needs a Hero

New research shows the motivational value of having a hero in your life.

Posted Apr 06, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

KEY POINTS

  • Heroes are those who fight to make a positive difference, whether they be famous figures or everyday individuals.
  • Heroes serve many psychological functions, such as enhancing motivation, hope, and morality.
  • New research shows that having a hero can increase your own sense of power.

Can you identify the heroes in your life? What makes them important to you? Perhaps your hero is a cartoon character, one of the many Marvel varieties. Perhaps you admire a major political figure or someone who virtuously defends your own ideological position. Your hero might be a historical person who sacrificed everything to save a nation or cause.

These heroes with a capital “H” stand in contrast to heroes with a small “h” who you might run across in your daily life. The media often focus on stories of those everyday heroes, from people on the front lines fighting COVID-19 to those who make small but meaningful differences in their hometowns. Such heroes may be people who deliver meals to the socially isolated or those who give of their time to find vaccine appointments for neighbors with limited access to the Internet. They may be performing their routine job duties, but under duress, such as teachers or grocery store employees.

Stop and think, then, of the people you consider heroes and ask yourself what gives them this noble quality. According to Aulana Ulqinaku and colleagues of the University of Leeds (2021), a hero is someone who “fights to make a positive difference in someone’s life, winning the respect and admiration of the masses” (pp. 1434-1435). 

What are the qualities of a hero and what value can they have?

Ulqinaku and her colleagues go on from this general definition of a hero to list a set of heroic qualities. These include being “brave, fearless, selfless, self-sacrificing, honest, and strong, and having moral integrity” (p. 1435). Another key quality of heroes is having the “guts” to help others even if this means putting themselves in harm’s way.  

These laudable qualities, in turn, serve three psychological functions in people’s lives. As noted by the study’s authors, these functions fall into the category of enhancement (providing motivation, hope, inspiration), moral modeling (reminding people about the concept of being “good”), and protection (keeping people from danger and evil).

With these ideas in mind, think about the qualities of the people you would nominate as heroes and why they matter to you. Do your heroes make you feel safe? Do they show you by their selfless behavior that you, too, could become a better person?

According to Ulqinaku et al., you’ll be most likely to turn to a hero for inspiration during times of threat. Your identification with someone who has the qualities of bravery and selflessness provides some of that inspiration but so does the idea that you, too, could rise to conquer the threats in your life.

How do people respond when they face threats to their health and safety?

From a psychological standpoint, people’s responses during the COVID-19 pandemic reflect the way that they cope with the idea of their own mortality. This “mortality threat,” in the framework proposed by the British authors, has the potential to lead people to seek more inspiration than ever by their identification with heroes. In their words, “heroes are likely to be pillars” that you turn to under these highly stressful conditions. When you think about the hero, you are more likely to feel safe and protected, and the feelings of threat start to dissipate.

Much of the literature on stress and coping focuses on the ways that individuals can dig down deep into their own resources to manage threats. As such, this literature fails to consider the function of role models or other sources of inspiration as you make your way through difficult times. Ulqinaku and her team propose that what heroes give you, in addition to moral uplifting, is an increased sense of your own power to overcome adversity.

Researchers explore the idea that heroes help ordinary people feel more powerful

Proposing that heroes instill a sense of power in ordinary people, the British researchers conducted four studies, all of which involved seeing how participants who identified with heroes reacted to some type of mortality threat. Three of the studies used experimental manipulation to induce participants to remind themselves of a hero in the mortality threat conditions.

One key outcome measure of interest the authors used in their experimental studies was a choice option task in which participants rated their intentions to eat unhealthy snack foods. The authors chose this as an outcome because prior research has indicated that during times of intense mortality threat, people actually become more, not less, likely to engage in unhealthy habits. You might think of this as a kind of “last meal” theory in that, if you know your next meal will be your last, you’ll pile on whatever high-calorie comfort food you most crave. Why bother worrying about your health if you know the end of your life is in sight?

This last-meal theory isn’t exactly the most adaptive of behaviors from a long-term standpoint, given that by engaging in unhealthy eating you may place yourself at even higher risk of not surviving a health-related threat. The question the researchers asked was whether participants who believed in heroes would be less likely to throw their health-related cautions to the winds. 

Prior to conducting the experimental studies, the authors used real-life data to test their prediction that, when placed under mortality threat, people who think about heroes feel more powerful. The authors subjected Twitter data (over 150,000 tweets) to linguistic analysis. The tweets were produced by users in response to a 2016-17 set of terrorist attacks taking place in Turkey, Germany, and Israel. The key variables of interest were the extent of mortality threat (tweets related to death), reminders of heroes (words involving, e.g., heroism), and perceptions of personal power (strong, mighty, in command).

The Twitter study revealed that, as expected, people who referred to heroic themes also showed fewer mentions of terms suggesting mortality threat and more frequent reference to feelings of empowerment. These findings paved the way for an experiment in which the researchers used online survey software to prime their participants to think about mortality threat. In a third, field, study the researchers interviewed people’s sense of mortality threat in Catholic countries associated with the period of November 1 to 3, the time in which the religious are prompted to remember their lost loved ones.

In the fourth and final of these studies, the research team used the COVID-19 pandemic as the source of mortality threat. The 200 online participants in this part of the project reported on the extent to which they were thinking about death and believed their lives were threatened. Those in the hero reminder group next wrote about a hero, and those in the non-hero group followed the instruction to write about one of their acquaintances (not specifically a hero).

Examples of such stories included: “My hero is my mother. She is the hero of my life because during all her life she tried to fulfill every need of mine, although she was all alone;” “My hero is Angela Merkel. She is a strong and independent woman who now has the power to rule the world and change it for the better.” 

The researchers then asked participants to indicate how much of an unhealthy snack presented virtually to them they would consume (e.g. M&M candies) vs a healthy snack (grapes). Finally, participants rated themselves on perceived levels of their own sense of personal power (e.g. “If I want to, I get to make the decisions” and “I think I have a great deal of power”). 

The findings and the role of heroes in your life

Turning to the results of the experimental and field studies, the findings reinforced the original Twitter-based research, showing that the value of heroes appears to lie in their ability to help people feel more powerful. This sense of enhanced power, in turn, was associated with lower tendency to over-indulge in high calorie snacks, the sign that people have given up on their future.

As the authors conclude, although prior studies show that heroes help people cope with threats, the previous research failed to reveal the underlying mechanisms in this process. The empirical evidence provided by the Leeds study, the authors note, reinforces the role of heroes in transforming people’s views of their own power.

In the words of the authors, “Our findings suggest that both during threatening times related to terrorist attacks and COVID-19 pandemic, hero reminders can provide some relief to people experiencing mortality threats” (p. 1443). From a practical perspective, the findings also support the value of such messages to consumers as “#heroes” to provide these reminders to people as they bolster their ability to overcome these challenges to their sense of safety and security.

To sum up, whether it’s hero-based action movies or comics, a real story of everyday heroism, or a non-fiction work about a historical luminary, finding your own inspiration from these sources is a way to bolster your stress response. As long as you can identify a source of inspiration in someone who showed bravery, integrity, and strength, you’ll be able to put that identification to use in finding your own fulfillment.

References

Ulqinaku, A., Sarial, A. G., & Kinsella, E. L. (2020). Benefits of heroes to coping with mortality threats by providing perceptions of personal power and reducing unhealthy compensatory consumption. Psychology & Marketing. doi: 10.1002/mar.21391