It would be nice to think that we are all capable of great moral courage, that inside even the most unassuming person is a hero waiting to spring forth. It would be nice, but is it true?
It depends on how you define hero, according to a paper published in the Journal of Personality. The authors interviewed 50 people who had been given an award for heroism along with a control group of 50 award-less folks. The idea was to see whether there is a trait or set of traits that is common to people who won the heroism award and whether those traits are lacking in those of us whose only trophy features a little gold guy bowling.
A note about the heroes: Half of them had been given an award for one-time moral bravery, like saving a stranger from a burning house, while the other half had been given an award for long-term service, like volunteering in a hospital. This turns out to be a crucial distinction because, according to the study, many of those who had committed a single heroic act tended not to be much different from the control group. For instance, here’s what a guy who really did save someone from a burning building had to say:
... he was another human being and if there was a chance of helping him, then, you know, what the heck, why not? That was really it, nothing, not a lot of premeditation; when something like that happens, you run and grab things as quick as you can.
Commendable, for sure, but not exactly a fleshed-out philosophy. And personality tests showed this person, whom the article calls Carl, to be unremarkable. However, those who had demonstrated moral bravery over a long period of time—like the nurse who regularly comforted grieving families after they lost a loved one—scored unusually high on personality traits like nurturance. Others had firm principles that they tried to live by, like “do one good deed daily” and “live a life that has some meaning.”
The upshot is that while most of us are capable of one-time heroic actions, the people who are consistently heroic appear to have either some special personality ingredients or are guided by a philosophy that requires them to behave heroically. What this study, and previous studies, failed to find was a single characteristic that all extraordinarily moral people share. There is no hero gene.
Of course defining heroism is made tougher by how loosely the term is used. You can be a guitar hero by playing a video game. According to an article I saw, making your own popsicles qualifies you to be a “mom hero.” If a lifetime of moral bravery and freezing flavored water receive the same label then maybe it’s the word itself that needs saving.
(The full paper, “Varieties of Moral Personality: Beyond the Banality of Heroism,” is not available for free, but you can read the abstract here. The authors are Lawrence J. Walker, Jeremy A. Frimer, and William L. Dunlop.)