Heroism represents the ideal of citizens transforming civic virtue into the highest form of civic action, accepting either physical peril or social sacriﬁce.
While implicit theories of heroism abound, surprisingly little theoretical or empirical work has been done to better understand the phenomenon. Toward this goal, we summarize our efforts to systematically develop a taxonomy of heroic subtypes as a starting point for theory building. Next we explore three apparent paradoxes that surround heroism–the dueling impulses to elevate and negate heroic actors; the contrast between the public ascription of heroic status versus the interior decision to act heroically; and apparent similarities between altruism, bystander intervention and heroism that mask important differences between these phenomena. We assert that these seeming contradictions point to an unrecognized relationship between insufﬁcient justiﬁcation and the ascription of heroic status, providing more explanatory power than risk-type alone. The results of an empirical study are brieﬂy presented to provide preliminary support to these arguments. Finally, several areas for future research and theoretical activity are brieﬂy considered. These include the possibility that extension neglect may play a central role in public’s view of nonprototypical heroes; a critique of the positive psychology view that heroism is always a virtuous, prosocial activity; problems associated with retrospective study of heroes; the suggestion that injury or death (particularly in social sacriﬁce heroes) serves to resolve dissonance in favor of the heroic actor; and a consideration of how to foster heroic imagination.
Heroism: A Conceptual Analysis and Differentiation Between Heroic Action and Altruism (PDF)