What Is the Link Between Heroism and Antisocial Behavior?

Sensation-seeking might explain this apparent paradox.

Posted Nov 18, 2016

In a previous post, I discussed the seeming paradox that there are links between heroic and antisocial behavior. That is, people with a history of antisocial actions were also more likely to have taken brave risks to help another person. That post considered whether the common link between these two things was related to psychopathic traits. However, the evidence for this was somewhat mixed. A more likely personality trait linking these two things is sensation-seeking. People high in this trait might have a view of the world and of themselves that facilitates daring deeds, for good or ill.

James Bond Wikia
Source: James Bond Wikia

Several pop culture heroes, such as James Bond, combine apparent psychopathic traits with admirable qualities such as daring and resourcefulness under circumstances of extreme stress. In my previous post, I discussed some research investigating whether there is a real-life link between heroism and personality traits associated with psychopathy (Smith, Lilienfeld, Coffey, & Dabbs, 2013). As I noted, the results of this study were mixed, as some of the personality traits studied had modest positive correlations with heroic and altruistic behavior (i.e. putting oneself at risk to help another person). On the other hand, one of the main traits discussed, fearless dominance, is largely unrelated to antisocial behavior. Furthermore, cold-heartedness, one of the core features of psychopathy, unsurprisingly, was unrelated to heroic behavior. Nevertheless, something I found puzzling was that antisocial and heroic behavior had robust positive correlations that tended to be stronger than the correlations between antisocial behavior and the personality traits examined in that study. Since then I have become aware of some other studies that have separately linked sensation-seeking with both antisocial behavior and heroism.

Sensation-seeking is defined as “seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences, and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experience.” People high in sensation-seeking are well-known for engaging in a wide range of risky practices such as unsafe sex with multiple partners, drug use, excessive drinking, and dangerous driving. Additionally, sensation-seeking has been linked to antisocial behavior, such as vandalism and theft. Specifically, a large-scale study of identical twins conducted in America and Australia examined how various personality traits, including sensation-seeking, the Big Five, and several others were related to antisocial behavior; sensation-seeking and impulsivity had larger correlations with antisocial behavior than most other traits (Mann et al., 2017). This suggests that people who enjoy taking risks are more likely to engage in crimes such as vandalism and theft, perhaps because they find such activities exciting.

Furthermore, people high in sensation-seeking tend to have a positive attitude towards risk, including crime risk, in that they tend to be optimistic about the consequences of their risk-taking and think that negative consequences are unlikely. In general, they tend to view the world as less threatening than people low in sensation-seeking (Franken, Gibson, & Rowland, 1992). Hence, they might feel more confident (sometimes too confident) of their ability to handle situations that might get them into trouble compared to most people.

There is some evidence that high sensation-seeking and positive attitudes toward risk can sometimes lead to prosocial as well as antisocial actions. A study of Israeli war veterans found that those who had been decorated for bravery during combat tended to be higher in sensation-seeking than other veterans (Neria, Solomon, Ginzburg, & Dekel, 2000). Additionally, veterans who were higher in sensation-seeking tended to suffer from fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress and combat related intrusions (such as flashbacks to traumatic events) than veterans lower in sensation-seeking, and showed better long-term psychological adjustment. These findings suggest that in the face of danger, those high in sensation-seeking were more likely to take risks and to engage in heroic actions. The authors noted that a previous study found that prisoners of war who were high in sensation-seeking were more likely to use problem-focused coping than emotion-focused coping than their low sensation-seeking counterparts. During captivity, the former also reported fewer feelings of helplessness and loss of control. This might indicate that they appraised their situation as challenging and themselves as effective in coping with the challenge, while low sensation-seeking POWs were more likely to evaluate their situation as stressful and uncontrollable.

Hence, sensation-seeking might be linked to both antisocial behavior and heroism because of the way people high in this trait view danger and their own ability to deal with it. That is, people high in sensation-seeking tend to view risky situations as challenges that they feel able to cope with and are confident that they will have good outcomes. By contrast, people low in sensation-seeking tend to view risks as likely to lead to bad outcomes that they are unable to cope with. One of the things that people admire about the James Bond character is his amazing ability to achieve his mission goals in unbelievably dangerous situations, often by improvising clever solutions under pressure. In a real life parallel that I noted earlier, POWs high in sensation-seeking were able to maintain a sense of agency even while imprisoned, rather than feeling overwhelmed by helplessness.

The apparent link between antisocial behavior and heroism seems paradoxical in that it appears strange that people who are willing to do bad things are sometimes also willing to do good things even when it puts them at risk. The idea that “psychopaths and heroes might be twigs off the same branch” (Smith et al., 2013) seems to accentuate this paradox, because classically psychopaths are highly selfish, even evil people, who are more likely to laugh at someone else being in danger rather put themselves at risk for another’s benefit. Perhaps the common connection is that psychopathic types and potential heroes have a strong sense of personal agency that enables them to take risks that other people tend to avoid. However, people can be high in sensation-seeking without necessarily being highly selfish, as sensation-seeking is more morally neutral than psychopathy. In this sense, it may be misleading to overstate the connection between psychopathic tendencies, that have a core of selfishness, and heroism that benefits others at a risk to oneself. 

Image Credit

Sean Connery as James Bond from Wikia


Franken, R. E., Gibson, K. J., & Rowland, G. L. (1992). Sensation seeking and the tendency to view the world as threatening. Personality and Individual Differences, 13(1), 31-38. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(92)90214-A

Mann, F. D., Engelhardt, L., Briley, D. A., Grotzinger, A. D., Patterson, M. W., Tackett, J. L., . . . Harden, K. P. (2017). Sensation seeking and impulsive traits as personality endophenotypes for antisocial behavior: Evidence from two independent samples. Personality and Individual Differences, 105, 30-39. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.09.018

Neria, Y., Solomon, Z., Ginzburg, K., & Dekel, R. (2000). Sensation seeking, wartime performance, and long-term adjustment among Israeli war veterans. Personality and Individual Differences, 29(5), 921-932. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00243-3

Smith, S. F., Lilienfeld, S. O., Coffey, K., & Dabbs, J. M. (2013). Are psychopaths and heroes twigs off the same branch? Evidence from college, community, and presidential samples. Journal of Research in Personality, 47(5), 634-646. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2013.05.006

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