Those who commit acts of extreme heroism are often observed modestly brushing off their efforts. A recent study provides insight into the self-evaluations of heroes, suggesting that they consistently rate themselves as less heroic, admirable, and extraordinary than observers do. The study was published in Social Psychology and Personality Science.
The study’s author, Nadav Klein, wanted to explore why heroic individuals so often downplay their actions when compared to observers. He suggests the explanation lies in the way either party perceives the situation. Those who perform acts of heroism focus on the situation rather than their personal burdens when evaluating the heroic act. Observers, on the other hand, form their evaluations while focusing on the sacrifices of the hero.
Klein uses an example to illustrate this. “Observing a person running into a collapsing building to rescue another leads one to focus on the personal risk the actor undertook.” By contrast, “The person who runs into a collapsing building may be less likely to focus on his or her own personal risk than on the victim’s safety.”
Three separate studies were conducted to test whether heroic actors are more likely than observers to downplay the burdens associated with a heroic act. Researchers also tested whether heroes rate themselves less positively than observers do.
Experiment 1 had 251 participants read one of 42 real news reports describing a heroic act. Each report included a quote from the hero reflecting on their actions. Participants were then questioned on the news reports and results showed that, overall, subjects believed that the heroes underrated themselves when it came to being heroic, admirable, and extraordinary.
Experiment 2 randomly assigned 240 subjects to write about a heroic act they had either performed or witnessed. When participants were asked to evaluate the prosocial act in question, results showed that participants evaluated heroic acts that they had performed less positively than they evaluated heroic acts committed by others. They also rated heroic actions as less taxing when they were the actors rather than someone else.
Finally, Experiment 3 had 296 participants watch one of three real-life videos that depicted a heroic act resulting in one or more lives being saved. Subjects were assigned to either evaluate the actions of the hero in the video or to imagine themselves in the shoes of the actor and rate the heroic action as if they were the performer. Results showed that subjects gave less positive ratings to the heroic act and rated the personal burden as lower when they were imagining themselves as the actor, rather than when they were simply evaluating the actor in the video.
The author suggests that their findings reveal that heroes tend to rate themselves less positively than outsiders rate them and also tend to downplay their sacrifices. The author discusses a few possible explanations for this difference in appraisal.
“First,” he explains, “actors may judge themselves relative to what they could have done to help, whereas observers may judge actors based on what they have actually done.”
“Second,” he continues, “actors’ self-evaluations may be affected by the objective outcomes of their actions to a greater extent than observers’ evaluations. When outcomes are not uniformly positive (a firefighter who saved several people but not everyone caught in a fire), actors may evaluate themselves less positively than observers would.”
The author concludes that it seems likely that heroes do not perform for the accolades. He says, “Heroes’ shunning of exceptional praise suggests that reputation may not be a key incentive for extreme prosocial actions.”
The study, “Heroes Perceive Their Own Actions as Less Heroic Than Other People Do”, was authored by Nadav Klein.