The Characteristics of a Hero

What makes someone a hero?

illustration of a hero in a cape
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What characteristics or qualities make a person a hero? Is there a hero gene? According to one recent study, the answer might rest in what type of heroism we are addressing.

Researchers have found that people who had engaged in one-time acts of bravery (like rushing into a burning building or rescuing someone from the path of an oncoming train) are not necessarily that much different from control groups of non-heroes.

By contrast, people who engage in lifelong heroism (such as professional nurses who regularly comfort the sick and dying) do share a number of important personality traits such as empathy, nurturance, and a need to live by a moral code.

Definitions of Heroism

The scientific study of heroism is a relatively recent topic of interest within the field of psychology.

Researchers have offered different definitions of exactly what makes a hero, but most suggest that heroism involves prosocial, altruistic actions that involve an element of personal risk or sacrifice. 

Researchers Franco, Blau, and Zimbardo suggest that heroism involves more than just this, however. In their definition, heroism is characterized by:

  • Actions that are done in service of others who are in need, whether it is for an individual, a group, or a community
  • Actions that are performed voluntarily
  • The individual recognizes the potential risk or sacrifice they are making by taking these actions
  • The heroic individual willing accepts the anticipated sacrifice they are making
  • They engage in these actions without any expectation of reward or external gain

The Characteristics of Heroism

Researchers also do not necessarily agree about the central characteristics that make up heroism. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggested that heroes have 12 central traits which are:

  1. Moral integrity
  2. Bravery
  3. Conviction
  4. Courage
  5. Self-sacrifice
  6. Selflessness
  7. Determination
  8. Inspirational
  9. Helpful
  10. Protective
  11. Honesty
  12. Determination

The psychology of heroism might not be well understood, but many experts do believe that it is possible for people to learn to be heroes.

The following are just a few of the major characteristics that researchers have ascribed to heroes.

Heroes Are Concerned With the Well-being of Others

According to researchers, empathy, and compassion for others are key variables that contribute to heroic behavior. People who rush in to help others in the face of danger and adversity do so because they genuinely care about the safety and well-being of other people.

One study found that people who have heroic tendencies also have a much higher degree of empathy.

People who engage in acts of heroism feel concern and care for the people around them and they are able to feel what those in need of help are feeling.

Heroes Are See Things From the Perspective of Others

Researchers suggest that heroes aren't just compassionate and caring; they have a knack for being able to see things from the perspective of others. They can 'walk a mile in another man's shoes,' so to speak.

When they encounter a situation where an individual is in need, they are immediately able to see themselves in that same situation and see what needs to be done to help.

Heroes Have Useful Skills and Strengths

Clearly, having the training or physical ability to deal with a crisis can also play a major role in whether or not people become heroes.

In situations where would-be rescuers lack the know-how or sheer physical strength to make a difference, people are less likely to help or are more likely to find less direct ways to take action. And in many cases, this approach is probably best; after all, people senselessly rushing into a dangerous situation can pose even more difficulties for rescue workers.

People who are trained and capable, such as those with first aid training and experience, are more ready and able to step up when their skills are needed.

Heroes Have a Strong Moral Compass

According to heroism researchers Zimbardo and Franco, heroes have two essential qualities that set them apart from non-heroes: they live by their values and they are willing to endure personal risk to protect those values.

Their values and personal beliefs give them the courage and resolve to endure risk and even danger in order to adhere to those principles.

Heroes Are Competent and Confident

It takes both skill and self-confidence to rush in where others fear to tread. Researchers suggest that people who perform heroic acts tend to feel confident in themselves and their abilities.

When faced with a crisis, they have an intrinsic belief that they are capable of handling the challenge and achieving success no matter what the odds. Part of this confidence might stem from above-average coping skills and abilities to manage stress.

Heroes Face Fear

A person who rushes into a burning building to save another person is not just extraordinarily brave; he or she also possesses an ability to overcome fear. Researchers suggest that heroic individuals are positive thinkers by nature, which contributes to their ability to look past the immediate danger of a situation and see a more optimistic outcome.

In many cases, these individuals may also have a higher tolerance for risk. Plenty of caring and kind people might shrink back in the face of danger. Those who do leap into action are typically more likely to take greater risks in multiple aspects of their lives.

Heroes keep working on their goals, even after multiple setbacks. Persistence is another quality commonly shared by heroes.

In one 2010 study, researchers found that people identified as heroes were more likely to put a positive spin on negative events.

When faced with a potentially life-threatening illness, people with heroic tendencies might focus on the good that might come from the situation such as a renewed appreciation for life or an increased closeness with loved ones.

"The decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called upon to make at some point in time. By conceiving of heroism as a universal attribute of human nature, not as a rare feature of the few “heroic elect,” heroism becomes something that seems in the range of possibilities for every person, perhaps inspiring more of us to answer that call," write heroism researchers, Zeno Franco, and Philip Zimbardo.

A Word From Verywell

Researchers have found that in a lot of ways, heroes are not all that different from most people. However, there are a number of skills you can build that can boost your hero characteristics.

Building empathy, becoming competent and skilled, and being persistent in the face of obstacles are all abilities you can work on over time. By doing so, you can improve your ability to help others and come through in times of need.

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Article Sources

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  1. Franco, ZE, Blau, K, & Zimbardo, PG. Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology. 2011; 15(2): 99-113. doi: 10.1037/a0022672.

  2. Staats, S., Wallace, H., Anderson, T., Gresley, J., Hupp, J. M. Weiss, E. (2009). The Hero Concept: Self, Family, and Friends Who Are Brave, Honest, and Hopeful. Psychological Reports, 104, 820-832. DOI:

    10.2466/PR0.104.3.820-832

  3. Kinsella, EL, Ritchie, TD, & Igou, ER. Zeroing in on heroes: A prototype analysis of hero features. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2015; 108(1): 114-127. doi: 10.1037/a0038463.

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