In the field of social psychology, the study of heroes has attracted growing interest over the past decade, as heroes have been found to be an important part of everyday life and provide important psychological functions to children and adults. However, most research in this area has focused on predominantly WEIRD (white, educated, industrialized, rich, and from developed countries) samples and may not reflect wider conceptions of heroes across cultures.
A recent study by my colleagues at the University of Limerick and myself delved into the cultural differences in lay perceptions of heroes, examining the impact of individualistic and collectivistic values on the perception of various types of heroes. The study has been published in open access format in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
The research first investigated the prototypical features of heroes (i.e., in your own view, what are the features that you associate with heroes and heroic actions), and determined which features were most important in the prototype of heroes among Chinese participants. We found that some exemplars, such as heroes should love their country, related to the feature of patriotism, have been reported frequently by Chinese participants. However, the feature of patriotism was not mentioned by previous prototype analyses of heroes among Western participants.
We argued that one reason could be the different cultural values people hold. People from collectivistic cultures are more likely to define themselves as aspects of groups and to prioritize in-group goals. Patriotism, at a group level, fulfills important functions for building group unity and mobilizing individuals to act in ways that will favor their group or country.
Our subsequent studies revealed both cultural differences and similarities in lay conceptions of heroes between Chinese and American participants. For example, the findings demonstrated that Chinese participants rated patriotic, masculine, righteous, dedicated, responsible, respected, and noble as being more related to their personal view of heroes than American participants. In contrast, American participants rated strong, powerful, altruistic, personable, honest, leader, proactive, courageous, caring, and talented as being more related to their personal view of heroes than the Chinese participants. Several features did not discriminate well between the groups: saves, humble, fearless, determined, risk-taker, moral integrity, brave, intelligent, conviction, protects, exceptional, decisive, sacrifice, selfless, helpful, compassionate, and inspiration.
We argued that these features were endorsed similarly by the two groups and may represent a common understanding of heroes across both cultures. Furthermore, the findings demonstrated participants were more likely to identify a hero when their cultural features were used to describe the target person, emphasizing the role of cultural differences in hero perception.
We further investigated cultural differences in the perception of civil heroes, martial heroes, and social heroes. Civil heroes risk themselves to save others from physical harm or death, but there is no training or military code to help them deal with emergencies. An example of a civil hero could be a bystander performing an emergency rescue when someone collapses on the sidewalk. Martial heroes include people who are trained to handle dangerous situations and who are bound to a code of conduct. Examples of martial heroes could be police officers and paramedics. Social heroes typically do not involve an emergency situation but act with courage and kindness to serve or foster their community and its values. An example of a social hero could include a martyr or political leader.
We found that while there were no cultural differences in identifying civil and martial heroes between American and Chinese participants, Chinese participants perceived social heroes as more heroic than their American counterparts. Research showed that the perception of social heroes (e.g., martyrs, political figures, and religious leaders who lead a nation or inspire a movement for civil rights and freedom) is associated with collectivistic value orientations among Chinese participants and perception of social heroes is associated with individualistic value orientations among American participants.
As we explained in our article: “People from individualistic cultures (e.g., the United States) may be more sensitive to the personal causes of social heroes, such as their individualistic characteristics. Compared with other types of heroes, social heroes strongly emphasize collectivistic features, and they incorporate features (e.g., loyalty to the country and willingness to sacrifice their own interests for the country) that are strongly related to values that Chinese people tend to adopt. Hence, Chinese participants, compared with American participants, are likely to perceive social heroes as being more heroic than the other two types of heroes.”
Overall, the research offers valuable insights into the cultural differences in perceptions of heroes and the influence of individualistic and collectivistic values on these perceptions. Furthermore, the study contributes to the advancement of cross-cultural psychology methodology by using prototype analysis to explore cultural differences in lay understandings of a concept. Using the data-driven, bottom-up approach to collect lay conceptualization of heroes gives voice to the participants as active producers of definitions of heroes rather than based on researchers’ assumptions and expectations.
Human societies differ in a variety of psychological and behavioral tendencies, and therefore, it is interesting to explore how we conceptualize heroes in different societies. Importantly, examining lay conceptions of heroes in a non-Western culture can be helpful for contributing to understanding how heroes are used in everyday life in diverse cultures and promoting hero-related education initiatives.
The study, “On Cultural Differences of Heroes: Evidence From Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures“, was authored by Yuning Sun, Elaine L. Kinsella, and Eric R. Igou.