Why heroes rise during the global COVID-19 pandemic

Across the world, since the outbreak of the coronavirus, COVID-19, there has been lots of discussion about heroes. Why is it that we need heroes more than ever during a global crisis? Here are a few thoughts in response to this question based on existing research.

During a crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic, heroes are coming to the forefront because many of our basic human needs are threatened including our need for certainty, meaning and purpose, autonomy, self-esteem, and sense of belonging with others. An emerging body of research indicates that heroes help to fulfil, at least in part, some of these basic human needs.

Our research (e.g., Kinsella, Ritchie, Igou, 2015, 2017; Kinsella, Igou, & Ritchie, 2017) indicates that heroes provide three broad psychological functions to others: 1) enhancing and uplifting our lives, 2) modelling morals and values, and 3) protecting others. Heroes, unlike most role models or leaders, are particularly important during times of crisis due to the protecting function they serve – offering both physical and psychological protection when we need it most. The need for heroes to fulfil these functions is increased during the current global COVID-19 pandemic for a number of reasons.

First, negative feelings such as worry and disillusionment are understandably heightened in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Heroes enhance our lives by reminding us of the good in the world, boosting positive emotions, and making us feel more connected to humanity during this challenging time. Thinking about heroes can lead to a perspective shift – we momentarily turn our attention away from the negative news and towards more uplifting news. In particular, everyday heroes, people we know or can relate to, offer us positivity and hope during a crisis as a result of our close connections with them – we want to be associated with forces of good.

Second, over recent weeks we have observed many instances of people breaking the newly established social norms by not following social distancing and health behaviour guidelines, and as a result, putting their own needs ahead of others including the elderly or vulnerable. Heroes, on the other hand, counter this information by modelling moral behaviour and communal (co-operative) values. Heroes provide clarity during confusing times and draw attention to the most vulnerable members of society. Regular reminders of heroes behaving in ways that benefit the common good may help us to follow suit and give a sense of group solidarity (i.e., we are all in this together).

Third, our own sense of safety is threatened as a result of COVID-19. As well as the physical threat of the virus, many of us are experiencing additional threats such as disillusionment and meaninglessness due to facing changes across many life domains (e.g., COVID-19 deaths, job losses, reduced income, limited social contact, working without childcare). As well as striving to protect our physical health, heroes help us to feel psychologically safe by knowing that heroes are safeguarding our communities. Many citizens are working to maintain our health and security despite the threat of contracting COVID-19 themselves. These workers are being described as heroes – healthcare workers, members of the police and military forces, supply chain and logistics workers, and many more.

Fourth, the outbreak of this global pandemic has interrupted the relative predictability of our lives which is unsettling. For many, areas of our lives that provide routine – work, school, social activities, recreational activities, exercise – have changed. This uncertainty has been further exacerbated by the circulation of misinformation and fake news, as well as inconsistency in response from political leaders around the world. We are seeking leadership at this time, and many are turning to scientists and experts for factual information to provide clarity and guidance.

Comic book heroes fight for good against evil and in the current context, many members of society are proactively taking on this role against the common threat of COVID-19 – a virus that does not distinguish across social or economic boundaries, but the effects of which are amplified for the most vulnerable.

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