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On the Bravery and Courage of Heroes: Considering Gender

Heroism Science, Volume 2, 2017

By Elaine L. Kinsella, Timothy D. Ritchie & Eric R. Igou


Heroes are frequently described as both brave and courageous. Each adjective is often used interchangeably in public and academic discourse, despite historical and philosophical differences in their meaning. While research about heroes and heroism is burgeoning, little work has yet to provide a detailed analysis of specific hero features; indeed, there is a need for greater precision in our terminology and conceptual analyses of heroism. In the present article, we focus on two features of heroism, bravery, and courage, and critically parse these terms and the pervasive gender stereotypes that are associated with each. We aim to spark critical discussions about the personal features, motivations, and behaviors associated with heroes and heroism, as well as to outline some directions for future heroism research. We extend our previous work on the central and peripheral features of heroism, and provide directions for considering the role of gender and gender stereotypes in developing future theory and research on heroism.

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The Underdog Narrative in Movies: When Our Memories Fail Us

Heroism Science, Volume 2, 2017

By Nadav Goldschmied, Jessica Ruiz & Sydney Olagaray


Heroes who win are adulated. Underdogs are a special class of heroes who are facing especially daunting odds. Why do people extend support to underdog entities in light of their bleak odds for triumph? The current study explored the idea that the underdog narrative is one of ultimate success and that this schema is strong enough to elicit false memories. We surveyed participants’ recollections of two boxing movies. As predicted, participants accurately remembered James Braddock beating the world champion in the end of Cinderella Man (underdog consistent plot) but failed to recall Apollo Creed beating Rocky Balboa in Rocky I (underdog inconsistent plot). While ruling out alternative explanations of time and emotional attachment we propose that the underdog storyline is one of eventual triumph. This distortion in memory may, in turn, contribute to unfounded optimism about the yet-to-be-determined chances of contemporary underdogs and increase the likelihood of support extended to them. Limitations and future avenues of research are discussed in detail.

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Collaborative Heroism: An Empirical Investigation

Heroism Science, Volume 1, 2016

By Dana Klisanin


Interactive technologies have come to define our culture, and as such, they influence and shape our modes of perception and behavior. This empirical investigation explored the public’s perception of the impact of the Internet on heroism via assessment of a sample population through a process of item generation, sampling, and principal component analysis. A robust 5-component structure emerged with consensus among participants including: 1) Collaboration expands heroic potential; 2) Internet technology expands heroic potential; 3) Heroes are motivated to protect and serve; 4) Heroes are responsive to injustice; 5) Concern for others is a required ingredient. The results extend research in collaborative heroism, supporting the basic premises of the theory, suggesting that the tools of the networked society are impacting the social construction of heroism, expanding it such that heroism is evolving to meet the demands of the 21st century.

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Studies on Documented Historical Cases of Civil and War Heroism: A Mini-Review

Heroism Science, Volume 1, 2016

By Hannes Rusch


This mini-review identifies and briefly describes a total of 12 published studies investigating aspects of war and civil heroism by analyzing larger data sets on documented historical cases of such behavior. Eleven of these studies focus on either Carnegie Medal or Medal of Honor recipients. These two most prominent data sources are briefly characterized and directions for future research are pointed out.

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Book Review: Ordinary People Change the World

Heroism Science, Volume 1, 2016

By Stephanie Fagin-Jones


This paper reviews Ordinary People Change the World picture biography series, by New York Times Best-Selling author Brad Meltzer and award-winning illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos. The series offers children, parents, and teachers an indispensible resource toward cultivating the character traits and behaviors associated with heroism and heroic leadership. The extensively-researched, historically accurate series is comprised of eight books, each respectively entitled: I Am…Martin Luther King, Jr.; Albert Einstein; Amelia Earhart; Helen Keller; Rosa Parks; Jackie Robinson; Lucille Ball; and Abraham Lincoln. A major contribution of this book series lies in its ‘parallel process’: parents who share this series on the prosocialization of heroes are themselves engaging in the process of prosocialization with their own children, and in so doing, may be fostering the development of future heroes. Reading this series is likely to stimulate dialogue between parent and child focused on themes of character development associated with heroism and heroic leadership. Such dialogue may serve as scaffolding upon which narratives of moral development and moral identity can be based.

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How can Heroic Leadership Make a Difference for the World’s Refugees?

By Michelle Werning, February 12, 2016, Heroism Today

Countries around the globe are dealing with the refugee crisis and, like most countries, Germany has a process in place to help them – from the time they arrive, until their status has either been approved and they are allowed to stay, or not, and they are returned to their home countries. The influx over the past year has pushed all of these processes to the breaking point – some regions in Germany are handling it better than others. I wouldn’t say that no one saw this coming – one politician said over a year ago that it was just the tip of the iceberg. Another politician said “After years of exploiting the African continent, we should not be surprised when the suffering knocks on our door.” I agree with this last statement. The foreign policy of most major countries for far too long has been focused around what can be taken from these countries without giving anything back. Poverty, war, unrest are the result – what kind of situations motivate a person to travel such distances under the most grueling of circumstances, risking their own lives and that of their families?

In the short term, heroic leadership involves communities coming together to take care of those in need. The situation is difficult at the moment. There are so many people, primarily men, from a culture that is vastly different from our own. The rhetoric is the same as any other crisis in history where people from another culture flee war and famine. There are those who see only fellow human beings in need, those who see the downfall of society as we know it, and everything in between.

The fact is, people are here and they need our help. It doesn’t matter if you believe they are all criminals, or if you believe they are only here to live off social services, it doesn’t matter if you believe they are here to work, and it doesn’t matter if they are only here for a short time. They are here and they need to eat, they need shelter from the cold, and they need contact with others.

Our small town has taken in around 35 refugees. They come from Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Some are Christian, most are Muslim. I volunteered to teach German – I wanted to do something to help, but more importantly I wanted to confront my own fear. News reports are full of frightening stories, but deep down, my logical mind knows that most people, regardless of where they are from, are good and only want to live in peace.

My experience up until now has only confirmed what my rational mind knows. The men and women who live in our village shake my hand when we meet, they try to tell me their stories, they share pictures of their families. Their children go to school with our children. I can feel, under the surface that they are sad about being away from their families and traumatized by the things they have endured in their home countries and along the way to this country. There is also a steadfast determination by most to learn the language – some travel into the city (often enduring dirty looks and snide comments) to take extra classes that are being offered for free. I see the success that comes from people interacting on a personal level. Underneath the skin color, the culture, and the religion, we are all human beings who need compassion, empathy, friendship, and a purpose. The refugees I have met want to work and take care of their families.

They would prefer to go back home. I speak from personal experience when I say that resettling in a foreign country is not easy – and I am indistinguishable from any other German. No one knows that I’m not German until I start talking, and because I’m from a western country, I am accepted unconditionally. The same cannot be said for the refugees. The events in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have made their stay here even more difficult. All cannot be judged by the actions of a few. Those few must also be held accountable. But what happened in Cologne, where large groups of refugees are packed together with little contact with the local population, only confirmed what I already guessed – the best way to deal with the current situation is to bring small groups of refugees into small neighborhoods where they can learn the language and the culture. This contact is also important for us. I may not have all the answers – but I do know that sharing stories and learning about each other is the only way to eliminate prejudice. Being kind is the only way to change hearts and minds and build relationships.

At the global level, heroic leadership looks a lot different. The refugee crisis, poverty, and war stem from a lack of heroism at a global level by those looking to profit and a society that is comfortable turning a blind eye. There is corruption in most of the developing nations, corruption that is fed by a global system of exploitation. There are large industries looking to profit from war by selling weapons, industries looking to profit by providing goods to countries cheaper than the citizens of these countries can provide their own goods – at the head of all of this are trade agreements backed by governments that are unfair and designed to take as much as possible but give nothing back.

Doing the profitable thing instead of the right thing.

This flood of refugees is also a problem of our own making, a product of laziness in not knowing (or caring) where our products come from and under what conditions they are produced, of not knowing what our governments do behind closed doors when negotiating trade agreements or waging war, of not holding our companies accountable for what they are doing in other countries.

We too are guilty of doing the profitable thing instead of the right thing.

‘What you do makes difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.’ Jane Goodall

So what is to be done? What can each and every one of US do every day? YOU and I can choose to do the right thing instead of the profitable thing. We can make the right thing profitable, but only if we choose to. I implore you to ask yourself a hard question every time you make a purchase. “Did a person, animal, or the environment suffer so I could buy this? Where will this go when I’m done with it? Is the company paying fair wages and responsibly sourcing its products? What is my government doing at home and abroad?” YOU and I can make a choice to consume less and make our purchases fair and humane. Are there good solutions out there? You bet! Find them, support them with your money for the things you need, volunteer your time for things that matter to you! Most importantly, demand heroism from those in charge and from those who provide our goods and services. A better world is the knock-on effect of letting companies and governments know that you will no longer support a profit only system. There are no refugees fleeing peaceful countries where there are good jobs, a social safety net, and safe streets.

Heroic leadership means taking care of those in need in the short term and making good choices every day for a better world in the long term.

About the author:

Michelle Werning is a heroism promoter and educator based in Germany. Michelle’s background is in Communication Science. She has taught English language, Business Communication and Business Ethics for the Legal Department at the Christian-Albrecht University in Kiel, Germany.  Michelle’s journey as a heroism educator started in 2009. Since then, she has been translating heroism education material from English into German for application in primary schools.

From Greece with Love: A Researcher’s Journey into the Refugee Crisis

By Hanne Viken, November 26, 2015, Heroism Today

I remember the day I challenged myself with the thought:

– Is it really possible to study heroism without being a hero myself? Can I be a heroism researcher choosing not to be a hero myself?

The scary answer was of course – No.

It was this troubling question I had asked myself that made it impossible to look back. If I didn’t do more for humanity, I would feel like a joke preaching about heroism. I actually felt I had no other choice, if I am about to believe in myself as a researcher. It’s not enough to read and write about it –I need to live it.

This was a thought that I didn’t really like. It was uncomfortable for mainly two reasons:

  • Being a hero often means stepping out of your comfort zone, knowingly risking something. Meaning if it is not uncomfortable, you are not trying hard enough.
  • I personally have problems with the term “hero”. I am Norwegian, and Norwegians live by the rule: “Don’t believe you are anything special: Fit in, don’t stand out”.

Oh well, I decided to take a big step outside, as I ordered a trip to Lesvos, Greece. The world needs me. Millions of people are fleeing their homes and there is more than enough work to be done for anyone who is considering becoming a hero.

I am telling you: I stepped far out of my comfort zone. The days before departure, I couldn’t sleep or eat, as I was afraid of what I might see. Would I manage to meet these people, comfort some of them, knowing I couldn’t save any of them? Knowing that the child I would be warming probably would start freezing as soon as I left to feed and comfort another child? Is it meaningless? Would I be better off staying home? Donate money?

I was terrified. Would I be able to look the world in the eye, knowing there was too little I could do to change it?

So what is heroism anyway? Is it heroic of me to go on an aid-charter to Greece and getting to know the world as it is? Is it heroic not to? Is “effective altruism” the way to go in order to save lives? Should I donate money to The Malaria Foundation instead? Does heroism have anything to do with the situation I put myself in?

I argue that I learned a lot about heroism the week I spent in Lesvos.

The first thing I learned was:

Proximity matters. As I got close to the humans entering the island, the more empathy and love I felt for them. And I still do now, from my home in Norway. So in terms of the “effective altruism” question: Yes, it is more effective to donate money to Bill and Melinda Gates, whom I admire greatly. However, I suspect that by just donating money to humanitarian organizations, you may lose something I believe is important in a heroic life: being close to others by sharing both fear and gratitude.

Then I asked myself another uncomfortable question:

Could it be that this closeness to others suffering was basically a kind of exotic experience to me? Could it be that this was just a cheap adrenalin-heroic-charter-experience? I knew in all the horror I saw, that I was safe. I had food and shelter, and my baby boys were home in their warm bed – safe. How could I know which one was real?

And I found that the most interesting question to ask in this matter was:

– Who are we here for?

I remember when I thought, “Now, it is real”. I was on the shore of Lesvos looking at hundreds of cold people with no guarantees for the future whatsoever. Immigrants are risking their lives to get away from Syria, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. The journey from Turkey to Greece is extremely dangerous. The boats are nearly floating – plenty of motor problems, leaking boats made of rubber, too many people. Desperate people. Rain. Wind. Confusion and desperation. 150,000 people reached the shore of Lesvos in October. Imagine that.

The question “Who are we here for?” occurred to me as I watched volunteers operating at the beaches. Some volunteers seem to forget who they are here for – pumped full of adrenalin. They are the ones “playing heroes”. The poor immigrants and refugees are traumatized; they have just come out of the boat. They are trying to comprehend that they are alive. That their children actually live.
And a few, very few of the volunteers are shouting and grabbing their children further into the shore to rescue them. The parents panic – of course. They forget who they are here for. They see themselves as rescuers and heroes as they report home in newspapers and Facebook smiling in pictures with traumatized children in their hands. I figured that their intentions are good, but in the way they behave, they are here for themselves – forgetting about the actual needs of the victims.

One the other hand, some volunteers of course are here for others, and forget about themselves. They work all day and night, forgetting to eat and sleep. They are disturbed that they can’t save them all. Many of us had a breakdown as we experienced the hopeless situation we were in. Despair. These volunteers forgot that they are also here for themselves.

As I concluded Alisha Keys has concluded before me: We are here for all of us.

I understood this as a baby was about to freeze to death. A doctor with tears in his eyes asked me very gently to “please save this baby”. I walked with her away from the chaos at the beach towards the car while I was singing her lullabies. I didn’t know if she would die in my arms or not. The only thing I felt was love.

And I realized that the reason we are here is exactly what Alicia Keys sings about: “We are here for all of us”.

When I came back, a woman with baby-twins and no man, 9 months pregnant – was about to give birth. I helped her out of the boat into shore and laid her on a broken boat. Naturally she could not walk. Luckily, she is now in hospital.

And I really, I mean really don’t feel like a hero. I truly feel honoured. And I feel lucky to understand that there is no “they”, there is only “us”.

While I worked there, I experienced a collective love. In Eftalou, we kiss all day long. Everyone loves – even the refugees. Here is relief.

And over the sea from Greece, in Turkey – people are treated like animals. I hear horrible stories.
Over there they don’t know that we are here for all of us – and I truly feel sorry for them.

So going back to my problem about trying to be a hero in my own life. I have a problem with this because:

  • To be a hero is uncomfortable; and
  • Being a hero means you have to stand out from the crowd.

When I came back from Lesvos, I said: I will never be the same person again. I believe it was because of the lessons I learnt about stepping outside of my comfort zone and standing out.

It hurts to grow – remember the growing pain at night as a kid? It hurts. I believe this is what happens when you are stretching your own ability to make a difference. It is certainly scary to dare to ask yourself uncomfortable questions, to get to your own true intentions on why you are choosing to live the way you do – and if you could live differently, if you actually did what you preach, as I did as a heroism researcher.

As for the other problem, I finally freed myself from the fear of standing out. Because I found that it is not for the sake of the ego, it is for the sake of all of us, for humanity.

And I chose to believe that living a heroic life is a matter of daring to ask yourself uncomfortable questions about your true intentions – to dare to stand out, speak up and make a difference for the sake of all of us.

About the author:

Hanne Viken is a Norwegian heroism researcher and promoter. Her recently completed Masters thesis “Experts’ view on how to foster everyday heroism: A delphi study” was an innovative survey of leading psychological research and emerging conceptions of heroism. Using the Delphi Method and open interviews, Hanne captured and collated the perspectives of leading heroism science researchers, contemporary heroes, and heroism activists, producing a mind-map that identified key action areas for future research and promotion of heroism to the broader community. Hanne is extremely passionate and dedicated to spreading and teaching everyday heroism, and developing methods that are appropriate for the Norwegian cultural context in particular.