Reflecting on the psychology of heroism

What follows was written as an example of an essay for an Edexcel Key Question asking ‘How can social psychology be used to explain heroism?’ it contains descriptive material about the KQ, application of psychological concepts, theories and research and some discussion/evaluation. See if you can spot the differing components.

Heroism involves voluntarily putting oneself at risk in order to protect others. This could be a one-off, spontaneous act, such as confronting an attacker or ongoing, as in hiding people in a genocide situation. The idea that some people are ‘heroes’ suggests they are special and different from non-heroes. On the other hand, maybe everyone has the potential to show heroic behaviour should they find themselves in a volatile situation that requires decisive action, i.e. whether to risk your life for others, or to save yourself at the expense of others.

In June 2017, Florin Morariu became an everyday hero during a terror attack in London. A van ploughed down pedestrians and then the occupants rampaged through a famous food and drink market indiscriminately stabbing passersby. Florin left the bakery where he worked, grabbed a crate and hit one of the attackers with it. He then sheltered twenty terrified people in the bakery, while searching for a weapon to continue defending them. People had shouted to him not to go into the street and the police were shouting ‘go, go’ but Florin disregarded this, risking his life to help others, (The Telegraph 2017).

Social identity theory could explain Florin’s behaviour.  As a baker and shop keeper, Florin would have felt strong in-group bonds to his customers, the people of Borough Market, and was therefore highly motivated to protect them. Not everyone behaves in this way in the face of danger but perhaps this community was particularly important to him, providing an important source of self-esteem.

Using concepts from agency theory, it would appear that despite the pleas of his friends and the orders from the police, Florin remained in the autonomous state. Thinking independently and governed by his personal conscience, he resisted the will of others and put his own life at risk.

Personality factors may also account for why some people act in a heroic manner while others do not. This argument is supported by Jerry Burger (2009) who found that people who have a higher desire for personal control may be more likely to resist authority. In this situation, Florin went against the police officers’ orders to ‘get back’ and ‘keep down’. Also, empathic concern for others has been shown to influence the amount of moral strain experienced, for example, doing nothing to help while the attackers stabbed people would have caused some people more distress than others, potentially triggering some people to act but not others.

With regard to ongoing acts of heroism, the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide has brought to light many tales of ordinary people behaving in extraordinary ways. At least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by ‘interhamwe’ (those who attack together) in just 100 days. Gradually ordinary townsfolk became involved, killing their neighbours. However, there were also Hutus like Sister Felicite Niyitegek who provided refuge for 43 Tutsis in the Centre Saint Pierre where she worked as a nun (Svoboda 2017). When the interhamwe finally found them Niyitegeka was told she would be spared as a Hutu, but she said she would rather die with the Tutsis she had sheltered.

Tajfel and Turner (1979) might explain Sister Felicite’s behaviour by suggesting that her ethnicity as a Hutu was not the most important part of her self-concept. Instead she had a strong sense of shared humanity meaning she would treat people similarly regardless of ethnicity. Possibly, her membership of the Roman Catholic faith was more important to her than her ethnic group and identification with norms of her religion guided her heroic behaviour. This is supported by qualitative data collected by Milgram (1974).  One if his participants quit and 150 V after saying that he would not take orders from the learner. After the study, Milgram asked him about the best way to strengthen resistance against inhumane authority. The man, a Professor of the Old Testament said ‘If one had as one’s ultimate authority God, then it trivialises man’s authority’ (p.49). This said, there are also examples of Catholic priests who were also instrumental in the killings.

Understanding heroism is therefore a complex puzzle requiring careful analysis of the social networks in which we are all embedded. Acts of heroism like Felicitie’s, involve resisting destructive orders from legitimate sources of authority, e.g. governmental officials. Milgram’s baseline study (1963) suggest that many of us would obey orders in such situations, however Rochat and Blass (2014) revealed an unpublished replication completed in 1962 where Milgram asked the participants to ‘bring a friend’ who went onto play the role of the learner. In this condition, obedience plummeted suggesting that heroic acts to protect one’s own community are the extension of ‘ordinariness goodness’, (Rochat and Modigliani 1995).

One strength of the work exploring heroism is its applications to everyday life. Philip Zimbardo ‘Heroic Imagination Project’ aims to encourage and empower individuals to take heroic action during crucial moments in their lives. His programme draws on decades of research into power of situational forces and is an excellent example of the development of psychological knowledge over time culminating in a potentially critical application that could undoubtedly be of grave importance to society.


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