From Mandela to Superman: What makes a hero?

Who comes to mind for you when asked about heroes? Think about this for a second, just until you have someone in mind. Now, I would like you to think about why you view this person/character as a hero.

I can almost guarantee you that if you asked another five people who they think of when you mention the word hero, you would get a variety of different answers. However, if you then asked them to explain why they view that person/character as a hero, there is likely to be some consistency between their answers. This short blogpost aims to provide you with an insight to what makes a hero compelling to viewers, using the well-known examples of Superman and Nelson Mandela.

Superman is a common example of your typical fictional character playing the role of a hero in a movie. Throughout the movie, Superman saves many people using his special powers, while fighting with criminals who are after these powers. This is why many individuals view him as a true hero. On the other hand, Nelson Mandela, former South African president and civil rights advocate,  dedicated his life to fighting for equality. After spending 27 years in jail, he continued his fight for the abolition of racial segregation and went on to become South Africa’s first elected black president. This led him to be a highly admired man whom many refer to as a hero.

These two individuals hold vast differences, for example, one is a historic figure while the other is a fictional character, one fought off criminals while the other fought for justice. However, beneath the surface they actually have a lot in common. Both individuals displayed immense bravery, strength and power throughout their journeys. On top of this, they both held strong values in which they did everything in their power to stay true to. They devoted themselves not only for the self-benefit, but for the benefit of others, and as a result they earned the title of being a hero.

The psychological investigation of heroism is relatively new. Although heroes are abundant in literature and popular in discourse, little is known about what people think of when they think of heroes. This uncertainty has been addressed by many researchers across the world in attempt to close the gaps surrounding the concept of heroism. Research has shown that when thinking about the term ‘hero’, people’s social representations tended to centralize around the primary term bravery, with dominant links to the terms strong and self-sacrificing. On the other hand, for the term ‘everyday hero’, people’s social representations tended to be more balanced around five different terms: helpful, brave, selfless, self-sacrificing and endurance (Keczer, File, Orosz & Zimbardo, 2016). These characteristics tie in greatly with those of the heroes mentioned above, however heroism is quite complex and may be difficult to distinguish from similar social categories such as role models or leaders.

 On this note, research has gained a deeper insight into the characteristics of heroes in comparison to leaders and role models. In comparison to leaders, heroes were most likely to be described (by members of the general population) as brave, moral, willing to save others and sacrifice, altruistic, compassionate, selfless, courageous, and willing to protect (relative to role models or leaders). Although heroes were often considered powerful, they were not rated as powerful as leaders. Both heroes and leaders were said to be likely to display the ability to lead and guide others. This is interesting given that many heroes do not occupy formal leadership positions, suggesting that in contrast to formal leaders, heroes adopt a more informal leadership (see Gardner’s theory of informal leadership). Heroes are, perhaps, more likely to guide a new way of thinking or alternative perspective or practice among a particular group, sometimes without a clear common goal. Another potentially interesting distinction is that in any given situation, heroes often act spontaneously (e.g., risking one’s life to save a drowning child). Leadership is rarely characterized by the same level of spontaneity, as leadership tends to occur over time. Heroes may also be seen as similar to role models, as both heroes and role models enhance and inspire others. However, role models have the ability to impact others in positive and negative ways, while heroes are consistently described as having a positive impact on the lives of others (Kinsella, Ritchie & Igou, 2015).

Heroes come in many forms and not just your typical movie “superhero” or historic figure. Many people display these characteristics in their everyday lives. Sometimes even the seemingly little things can be seen as acts of heroism. Although people hold many different representations of heroes, which have likely been shaped by factors such as their environment and culture, there are many common factors that help us identify heroes in our lives.

About the Author

Alanna Heraty (@AlannaHeraty) is a 3rd year undergraduate student on the BSc. Psychology programme at the University of Limerick, Ireland. She is currently on research placement (via the cooperative education programme) in the Department of Psychology and RISE lab (@risetoresearch), supervised by Dr. Elaine Kinsella (@elainekinsella). Alanna is particularly interested in the psychology of group dynamics and human development.

Keen to learn more about this topic?

If you enjoyed this blogpost, please consider registering for the Third Biennial Heroism Science conference hosted by the Department of Psychology at the University of Limerick taking place on May 27th and 28th 2021. For more details and to register, click here:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s