What makes a hero?

Dr Joan Harvey who led the research, says: “We found that people were making judgements on how heroic a deed is based on whether it was personal – so involving a neighbour or children, whether they could empathise with the situation and whether the person worked for the emergency services or not.

“It seems that people consider someone a hero if they go beyond the call of duty – but in the case of the emergency services, that duty never seems to stop.”

The work is published in the Journal of Risk Research today, Thurs 30th July.

The Newcastle University researchers found that people appeared to think that those who worked for the emergency services were trained to deal with difficult situations – even if they were off-duty – so therefore they were in a position to apply their knowledge before acting. Psychologists describe this as being able to cognitively appraise the situation.

In the case of 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre, Dr Harvey says: “The fire-fighters were trained to cope with fire and smoke but they weren’t trained to judge when a building might collapse from 80 floors up. This may influence how the public perceives them – they are considered heroes – and our admiration of them may have increased because they made judgements based on their knowledge but they didn’t have the correct knowledge about the building.”

Given five real-life scenarios to read, members of the public rated the heroism of the acts and indicated whether it was a risk worth taking. A clear difference emerged when there was a successful outcome and people were rescued but also between the perception of the public about professionals (fire fighter and off duty police officer) and lay-people.

In one scenario, an off-duty police officer stops two young men trying to steal a car but as a result is stabbed in the chest with a screwdriver. The public perceived this as a risk not worth taking (a mean score of 3.47 out of 10) and he received average admiration as a hero ( 5.41).

In another scenario, an accounts clerk rescues two children and a baby from his neighbour’s burning house. The public perceived this as a risk worth taking (8.05) and he received a high level of admiration as a hero (8.90).

From: How do we perceive heroes? Joan Harvey, George Erdos & Lisa Turnbull. Published in: Journal of Risk Research. Vol 12 Issues 3-4 2009 Pages 313 – 327, DOI: 10.1080/13669870802519430

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