Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Ernest Becker’s Approach to Why Heroism Exists

By Scott T. Allison

People often ask me why we have heroes. In an earlier essay, I describe the 12 functions of heroism – that’s one way to answer the question.

Another way is to go deeper. In psychology, to go deeper often means to get at issues that we may not be consciously aware of. Of all the scholars who have ever investigated heroism, the person with the deepest understanding of the causes of heroism was a cultural anthropologist named Ernest Becker.

Becker took a psychoanalytic approach toward understanding heroism, meaning that he focused on unconscious fears and wishes that drive our behavior. His 1973 award-winning book, The Denial of Death, is pure genius in describing the unconscious human need for heroism.

The “Ache of Cosmic Specialness”

Becker’s analysis begins with the observation that children’s narcissism can take the form of conventional self-esteem, but more often than not it morphs into a powerful drive to achieve “cosmic significance”. He defined cosmic significance as “the desire to stand out, to be the one in creation” (p. 3).

Becker also calls this need “man’s tragic destiny”, and we’ll get to the tragic part of it in a moment. This central calling for greatness refers to each person’s transcendent need to “desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else” (p. 4).

And here we get to my favorite phrase that Becker uses. We may spend our lives looking for a better job, a better car, and a better roof over our heads, but “underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness” (p. 4, italics added). People literally “ache” to become something big and meaningful. They ache for heroism, in other words.

Becker believed that we look to accomplish heroic tasks because we are all too aware of the shortness of life and our inevitable death. According to Becker, “the hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count” (p. 5).

Self-Delusions of Heroism

Becker argued that most of this heroic drive is buried in our unconscious, as it would be an “ache” or “a devastating release of truth” to be made aware of how much our mundane lives fall short of achieving cosmic specialness. In other words, it’s pretty painful for most of us to admit that we’ll never become famous or achieve the heroic status of a Gandhi or a Malala or a Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our societies – not to mention the laws of mathematics — are simply not designed to allow average people to become well above average. Thus, this unfulfilled “universal urge to heroism”, deeply imbedded in all of us, contributes to our anxiety and malaise. Joseph Campbell (1991) labeled the 20th century as The Age of Anxiety, referring to the negative emotional consequences of our inability to know how to live a heroic life.

Becker noted that a few select individuals are capable of achieving something that will live on after they die. The heroism of many superstar individuals, plastered daily over social media, cultivates a misleading sense that long-lasting heroism is attainable to us all. Most of us, however, cannot achieve a heroic level of accomplishment and fame. Our best efforts are destined for failure. Becker argued that we share the same chance of success in crafting a heroically memorable life as do insects and lower animals.

Because our efforts to become heroic are likely to fail, we concoct a mental illusion that what we do has some vast significance. Striving after an illusion puts us in an existential dilemma. What is the best illusion under which to live? The illusion must give us dignity and hope. Historically, religion has fulfilled this function, endowing humans with eternal meaning and a sense of cosmic purpose. But as Becker and others have pointed out, in modern times religious dogma has become increasingly more difficult for the majority of us to accept.

Becker makes the compelling case that as we grow older, we realize that the most we can do to obtain the feeling of significance is to become part of “a cog in a heroic machine” (p. 12). We can serve our country, volunteer at our church, or advance the political party of our choice. We can become part of some worthy mass movement, become activists, or support a social cause of the utmost importance.

In short, people in search of heroism are driven to attach themselves to something big, something they deem to be of supreme importance. We ride the coattails of a cause bigger than ourselves and, most importantly, we desperately want the cause to be successful and to outlive us. To further satisfy our call to heroism, we can mentally exaggerate the size of the small part we play in this larger heroic machine. In this way we delude ourselves into believing that we are participating in life meaningfully, even heroically.

Charismatic Leadership as the Ticket to Heroism — or Villainy

Thus Becker believed that for most people, the path of personal heroism was doomed to failure because “no person is strong enough to support the meaning of his life unaided by something outside him” (1969, p. 43, italics added). That outside force is often a conspicuous and charismatic leader promising to lead followers on a great cause.

Charismatic heroic leaders provide a mechanism for average people to become part of something beyond them that is big, packed with significance, and destined to outlive them. Unable to achieve personal heroism on their own, most people are vulnerable to what we might call the perfect storm of susceptibility to influence from powerful leaders. Feeling utterly unheroic on their own, the average person will soak up a charismatic leader’s message of collective heroism like a dry sponge. The more self-confident the leader in promising an association with a great heroic cause, the faster and higher people will jump at the chance to join this large social bandwagon that appears earmarked for greatness.

Few of us, according to Becker, are consciously aware that we have this “ache of cosmic specialness” and that our lives are driven by this “universal call to heroism”. But it’s good to know so that we aren’t easily duped by charismatic leaders promising us either greatness or a return to greatness. The wrong leaders can use our drive for heroism to achieve their villainous aims.


Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press

Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Anchor Books.

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The Hero Fixes a Toilet

By Scott T. Allison

Our toilet started running water intermittently between flushes, so I took the initiative to fix it. How hard could it be, I thought. That was my first mistake — I have a long, checkered history of trying to fix toilets. But denial and selective memory are powerful defense mechanisms, and money is money. If I just try harder, I should be able to conquer the toilet.

It didn’t happen.

My second mistake was setting out to the Big-Box hardware store to get a new flapper. Who needs customer assistance, I reasoned. Hubris is a terrible thing.

At Big-Box, I matched up the old one with the new one, brought the new one home, installed it, and discovered that it wasn’t quite the right size.

Like any good hero, I decided I needed help. This time I’d go to the smaller local hardware store where I’d get assistance from the friendly clerk.

Sure enough, at the small store an eager employee, a man in his late 60s, helped me pick out a different flapper. Even at this small store, there were over a dozen options – red flappers, black flappers, white flappers. Some plastic, some rubber, all of them enticing, all of them full of potential. The world of toilet flappers opened up to me in ways I never imagined.

I went home, installed the recommended flapper, and discovered that it too wasn’t quite the right size. Damn.

Like any good hero, I decided I needed more help. This time I recruited my wife to assist me. She’s handier around the house than I am, and surely we’d find the right flapper together. We went back to the small store to inspect more options.

Arriving at the store, I recognized the eager employee who helped me the day before. He asked the guy behind the counter to help us, and the four of us resumed The Great Flapper Hunt. We looked at them all, again, and found one that looked promising. Returning to the counter to ring it up, we found yet another employee waiting for us, making it five on our team, and this fifth Beatle had his own ideas.

The fifth guy walked us back to The Aisle of Great Flappers, and he found other more exotic flappers farther down the aisle that we hadn’t even seen before. The specter of added possibilities gave us all a shot of hope.

We settled on a flapper that showed incredible promise. We looked at it from all angles, comparing the old one with the new one, back-to-back and side-to-side, confirming without a doubt that we had finally identified The Flapper. The Chosen One.

We took it home and it didn’t work. Strike three.

But like any good hero, I persisted. Before leaving the store, the original small-store helper – the silver-haired man looking very much like Obi Wan Kenobe – raised his finger in the air and recommended what amounted to our last resort. “If this flapper doesn’t work,” he said, “there’s a big specialty plumbing store here in Richmond on Westwood Avenue. It has what you need.”

My wife and I made the long trek to this specialty store, our Land of Oz. The Wicked Witch of Westwood was waiting for us, ready to squeeze a whole new set of mistakes from us.

The Westwood store was a new, unfamiliar and dangerous world of PVC piping, hoses, and new-fangled brass fittings and connectors. There was not one mere aisle of flappers, but an entire building wing devoted to flappers. These flappers were magnificent. They came in unimagined shapes, colors, and sizes, some looking like Star Wars vessels, some like drones, and others like bongs. It was a confusing array of choices that dazzled and blinded and confused us.

Our jaws dropped. We were scared, overwhelmed, and desperate. No help was available. We stood alone and exposed as frauds in the midst of this cacophony of plumbing paraphernalia. We were numb, paralyzed and defeated.

At that moment I remembered what all heroes do when they find themselves in the proverbial belly of the whale. They find a way out. Noting the “Exit” sign, we made haste toward the door, but not before snatching up a cheap tube of plumbing sealant and quickly paying for it.

Our toilet works again. I am now calmed by the sound of intermittent running of water between flushes. The sealant did its job, sort of, on the old misshapen flapper. What was once a problem is now a success story, all thanks to my willingness to believe that I followed the blueprint of the hero’s journey.

The Great Flapper Hunt is over. During an occasional lucid moment, I am reminded that I failed. I then comfort myself with the words of my hero, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who once said: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not weakness, that is life.”

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The 12 Functions of Heroes

This article is excerpted from the book:

Allison, S. T. (Ed.) (2022). The 12 functions of heroes and heroism. Richmond: Palsgrove.

By Scott T. Allison

I’ve been studying and writing about heroes since 2008, when my dear friend and collaborator, George Goethals, and I began writing our first book on heroism, which appeared in print in the Fall of 2010. The book was called, Heroes: Who They Are & Why We Need Them, and one of the strangest things about it is that while we did discuss who our heroes are, we never really addressed the issue of why we need them. That subtitle was our publisher’s idea, and in our book we conveniently avoided tackling the functions of heroes and heroism in our daily lives. The main reason for our avoidance centered on the fact that at that time we just didn’t know! Heroism science didn’t even exist yet, and a lot of interesting and illuminating research had yet to be conducted on this important topic.

A lot has happened since 2008 and 2009, when we composed that little book. Before briefly delving into the evolution of heroism studies, let’s put all our cards on the table and reveal what the 12 functions of heroism. Let’s also keep in mind that there are no doubt more functions than these 12. If I had to guess, there are probably several dozen more functions. But these 12 represent a start, so here goes:

  1. Heroes give us hope
  2. Heroes energize us
  3. Heroes develop us
  4. Heroes heal us
  5. Heroes impart wisdom
  6. Heroes are role models for morality
  7. Heroes offer safety and protection
  8. Heroes give us positive emotions
  9. Heroes give us meaning and purpose
  10. Heroes provide social connection and reduce loneliness
  11. Heroes help individuals achieve personal goals
  12. Heroes help society achieve societal goals

Take a good look at this list of 12 functions. Some things instantly jump out at us. First, it’s pretty clear that heroism offers benefits that span many dimensions of human well-being. There are basic survival benefits (e.g., safety and healing). There are cognitive benefits (e.g., wisdom). There are motivational benefits (e.g., energy). There are emotional benefits (e.g., hope and positivity). There are social benefits (e.g., less loneliness). There are growth benefits (e.g., development). There are spiritual benefits (e.g., morality). There are existential benefits (e.g., meaning and purpose). And there are creativity benefits (e.g., personal and societal goals).

No wonder we have heroes! We need them badly to get us through this challenging experience called life. Heroes help us survive, and they help us thrive. They help us through our worst times, and they prepare us for our best times. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about heroes is that they don’t have to be physically present to help us survive and thrive. Just remembering our heroes can do the job for us. Nostalgia for past heroes, both living and dead, can produce these 12 benefits of heroism (Allison & Green, 2020). Research on the impact of losing a parent at a young age has shown that people carry the departed parent with them forever, holding them in their minds, imagining their emotional support and mentoring (Chater, Howlett, Shorter, Zakrewski-Fruer, & Williams, 2022). We all benefit from the memory our heroes, often in ways we’re unaware of.

In 2014, Goethals and I published a chapter on a set of phenomena that we called the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which describes how our choices of heroes are always in flux. Over the course of the human lifespan, people change in many ways – we pass through various developmental stages, our life circumstances change, and the people and the world around us all change, too. Therefore, our needs and psychological states are always changing. The heroic leadership dynamic proposes that our heroes come and go in ways that match our ever-shifting needs, motivations, and life circumstances. For example, a breast cancer patient may choose a breast cancer survivor as a hero to inspire them. After recovering from cancer, that same person may take up golf and choose a professional golfer as a hero. And so on. Our heroes serve the function of meeting our needs at a particular time and place in our lives, and thus as our lives change, so do our heroes (Allison & Goethals, 2014).

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic proposes two main functions of heroism. First, heroes provide epistemic benefits, also known as wisdom benefits. Heroes and tales of heroism educate us about how to navigate through life, how to meet difficult challenges, how to regulate our emotions, how to resolve the paradoxes of life, how to get help from allies, how to handle our enemies, and how to pass on our hard-earned wisdom to others. Second, heroes provide energizing benefits, which refers to the ability of heroes to inspire us, motivate us, grow us into our best selves, and heal our psychic wounds. Later, our good friend and colleague Olivia Efthimiou added a third benefit, namely, ecological benefits, referring to the ability of heroism to help us interact with larger environmental structures in which we’re all embedded (Efthimiou & Allison, 2017).

In 2015, the highly creative and productive research team in Ireland, headed by Elaine Kinsella and Eric Igou, published a very important article that empirically demonstrated, for the first time, the existence of three functions of heroism (Kinsella, Ritchie, & Igou, 2015). In their Hero Functions Framework, Kinsella et al. found that their participants were able to identify the functions of (1) enhancement, i.e., heroes motivate, inspire, instill hope, and improve morale; (2) moral modeling, i.e., heroes model the values and virtues of society; and (3) protection, i.e., heroes help us, save us, guide us, and defend us against evil and danger. Kinsella and her colleagues also compared the functions of heroism with the functions of leadership, and they present important data showing that heroes offer us unique gifts compared to leaders and role models.

Most recently, my friend and colleague Jeff Green and I have explored some additional functions of heroism based on research on the psychology of nostalgic reminiscences (Hepper et al., 2014). This research shows that people tend to feel nostalgia about heroes from their past — friends and family members, especially. Studies have shown that people also feel nostalgia about their own past heroic accomplishments – for example, the time in the past when they themselves overcame adversity to accomplish something important in their own lives. Heroism, therefore, may be embedded in the content of nostalgic memories. Just as Chater et al. (2022) found that deceased parents continue to move and inspire people, it appears that our fond memories of any past hero can wield positive influence on us long after the hero is gone.

This nostalgic reverie appears to have psychological and behavioral benefits (Sedikides et al., 2015). People higher in nostalgia proneness are more like to be empathic and to behave more prosocially. Nostalgia also increases one’s sense of social connectedness, the depth and range of one’s positive emotions, and one’s ability to achieve personal goals (Allison & Green, 2020). This research suggests that just thinking about our past heroes, or our own past heroic behavior, may serve many important psychological and behavioral functions (Kneuer, Green, & Allison, 2022).

Much more work on the functions of heroism has yet to be done. For more information about the 12 functions of heroism, please check out this book:

Allison, S. T. (Ed.) (2022). The 12 functions of heroes and heroism. Richmond: Palsgrove.


Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Allison, S. T. & Green, J. D. (2020) Nostalgia and heroism: Theoretical convergence of memory, motivation, and function, Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1-13.

Chater, A. M., Howlett, N., Shorter, G. W., Zakrewski-Fruer, J. K., Williams, J. (2022). Reflections experiencing parental bereavement as a young person: A retrospective qualitative study. International Journal of Environments Research and Public Health, 19, 2083.

Efthimiou, O., & Allison, S. T. (2017). Heroism science: Frameworks for an emerging field. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 58, 556-570.

Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Hepper, E. G., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Ritchie, T. D., Yung, Y. F., Hansen, N., Abakoumkin, G., Arikan, G., Cisek, S. Z., Demassosso, D. B., Gebauer, J. E., Gerber, J. P., González, R., Kusumi, T., Misra, G., Rusu, M., Ryan, O., Stephan, E., Vingerhoets, A. J., & Zhou, X. (2014). Pancultural nostalgia: prototypical conceptions across cultures. Emotion (Washington, D.C.)14(4), 733–747.

Kinsella, E.L., Ritchie, T.D., & Igou, E.R. (2015). Lay perspectives on the social and psychological functions of heroes. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 130.

Kneuer, M. A., Green, J. D., & Allison, S. T. (2022). In pursuit of important goals: Nostalgia fosters heroic perceptions via social connectedness. Heroism Science, 7(1), 1-29.

Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., Routledge, C., Arndt, J., Hepper, E. G., & Zhou, X. (2015). To nostalgize: Mixing memory with affect and desire. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 51, 189–273.

Heroism Phenomena Identified by Scott Allison’s Research Lab 2005-Present

Below is a partial listing of heroism-related phenomena discovered by Dr. Scott T. Allison’s research lab from 2005 to the present day.

1. The Death Positivity Bias – 2005

The tendency of people to evaluate the dead more favorably than the living. This is one way we “heroify” people.

Allison, S. T., & Eylon, D. (2005). The demise of leadership: Death positivity biases in posthumous impressions of leaders. In D. Messick & R. Kramer (Eds.), The Psychology of Leadership: New Perspectives and Research (pp 295-317). New York: Erlbaum.

2. The Frozen in Time Effect – 2005

People’s tendency to resist changing their impressions of dead heroes compared to living heroes.

Eylon, D., & Allison, S. T. (2005). The frozen in time effect in evaluations of the dead. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1708-1717.

3. The Underdog Abandonment Effect – 2008

The tendency of people to no longer root for underdog heroes when both their success has low self-relevance and low consequences.

Kim, J., Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Goethals, G., Markus, M., McGuire, H., & Hindle, S. (2008). Rooting for (and then Abandoning) the Underdog. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 2550-2573.

4. The Great Eight Traits of Heroes – 2011

The discovery that people believe that heroes possess the traits of wise, strong, charismatic, caring, resilient, reliable, selfless, and inspiring.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.

5. Social Influence Based Taxonomy of Heroism – 2012

The scientific identification of heroes as Transforming, Transfigured, Traditional, Transparent, Transposed, Tragic, Transitional, Transitory, Trending, and Transcendent.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals. New York: Routledge.

6. The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – 2014

A system of psychological forces that can explain how humans are drawn to heroes, how they benefit from these heroes and their stories, and how heroic tales help people become heroes themselves.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

7. Epistemic and Energizing Functions of Heroism – 2014

The conceptualization of the functions of heroism that includes epistemological needs involving the imparting of wisdom and emerging needs involving healing, growing, and inspiration.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

8. The Johnny Carson Effect – 2014

The tendency of people’s current need states to determine their choice of heroes, with these need-states changing as a function of people’s developmental stages and their changing life circumstances. (named after Johnny Carson’s quip that after all his divorces, his hero changed from Babe Ruth to King Henry VIII)

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2016). Hero worship: The elevation of the human spirit. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 46, 187-210.

9. Six Benefits of Suffering – 2016

The identification of benefits of heroic suffering as offering (1) redemption, (2) developmental progress, (3) humility, (4) compassion, (5) social union, and (6) meaning and purpose.

Allison, S. T., & Setterberg, G. C. (2016). Suffering and sacrifice: Individual and collective benefits, and implications for leadership. In S. T. Allison, C. T. Kocher, & G. R. Goethals (Eds), Frontiers in spiritual leadership: Discovering the better angels of our nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

10. Six Types of Heroic Transformation – 2017

Six commons patterns of transformation in heroes that involve changes in their mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and motivational state.

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., & Kramer, R. M. (2017). Setting the scene: The rise and coalescence of heroism science. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.

11. Three Heroic Transformative Arcs – 2017

The tendency of heroes to transform from a state of egocentricity to sociocentricity; from dependence to autonomy; and from stagnation to growth.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2017). The hero’s transformation. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership. New York: Routledge.

12. The Personal Heroic Imperative – 2018

Each human being’s built-in mandate to fulfill their heroic imperative by imagining and creating their own heroic growth.

Efthimiou, O., Allison, S. T., & Franco, Z. E. (2018). Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st century: Recognizing our personal heroic imperative. In O. Efthimiou, S. T. Allison, & Z. E. Franco (Eds.), Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st Century: Applied and emerging perspectives. New York: Routledge.

13. Transcendent and Trapped Immortality – 2018

The tendency of people to perceive dead heroes and villains differently. Specifically, we believe deceased good-doers achieve transcendent immortality, with their souls persisting beyond space and time; and evil-doers to have trapped immortality, with their souls persisting on Earth, bound to a physical location.

Gray, K., Anderson, S., Doyle, C. M., Hester, N., Schmitt, P., Vonasch, A., Allison, S. T., and Jackson, J. C. (2018). To be immortal, do good or evil. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44, 868-880.

14. Heroic Lag – 2019

The delay between the point in time when a hero first expresses their heroic message and when mainstream society adopts that message.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2019). The romance of heroism and heroic leadership: Ambiguity, attribution, and apotheosis. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

15. Heroic Consciousness – 2019

The tendency of heroes to demonstrate a mental and experiential approach to the world that is nondualistic, transrational, unitive, and empowered.

Allison, S. T. (2019). Heroic consciousness. Heroism Science, 4, 1-43.

16. Seven Barriers to Heroic Transformation – 2019

The tendency of people to avoid heroic transformation because of self-ignorance, impoverished environments, personal trauma, victim identification, absence of mentors, mental/physical illness, and lack of psychological flexibility.

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., Marrinan, A. R., Parker, O. M., Spyrou, S. P., Stein, M. (2019). The metamorphosis of the hero: Principles, processes, and purpose. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 606.

17. Heroic Leadership Imperative – 2020

The mandate of transforming heroic leaders to meet the individual, collective, and transcendent needs of their followers.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

18. Heroic Wholeness Imperative – 2020

The mandate of leaders to promote psychological wholeness and well-being by meeting the higher-level transcendent needs of followers.

Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

19. The Hero Androgyny Phenomenon  — 2020

The tendency of heroes to possess both masculine and feminine traits, i.e., agency plus communality.

Hoyt, C. L., Allison, S. T., Barnowski, A., & Sultan, A. (2020). Lay theories of heroism and leadership: The role of gender, communion, and agency. Social Psychology, 51, 381-395.

20. Heroic Autonomy  — 2021

The imperative of the hero to perform the last and most crucial heroic act alone and independent from their friends and mentors.

Allison, S. T. (2021). Beth Harmon’s hero’s journey: The psychology of heroism in The Queen’s Gambit. Richmond: Palsgrove.

21. Heroic Balance  — 2021

The ability of the hero to achieve a healthy life balance needed to achieve their heroic mission. Heroes needs to balance intuition with reason; emotion with logic; self-confidence with humility; autonomy with dependency; personal life with professional life; and more.

Allison, S. T. (2021). Beth Harmon’s hero’s journey: The psychology of heroism in The Queen’s Gambit. Richmond: Palsgrove.

22. Heroism Attribution Error – 2022

The tendency of people to confuse fame for heroism, such that they attribute heroism to celebrities who are famous for non-heroic reasons.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2022). The construction and presentation of heroes and heroines. In K. Lee (Ed.) A cultural history of fame in the modern age. Camden, UK: Bloomsbury Press.

23. Motional Intelligence — 2023

The ability of heroic (and villainous) leaders to use their bodily movements effectively in such a way to inspire and mobilize followers.

Allison, S. T. (2023). Motional intelligence and leadership. In G. R. Goethals, S. T. Allison, & G. J. Sorenson (Eds.). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Heroism Science: The Field, the Journal, the Conference

By Scott T. Allison

Although the field of heroism science is roughly two decades old, many people still wonder what the science is, and what it seeks to accomplish.

So here’s a brief description:

Since the year 2000, roughly, there has been a new (or renewed) scientific interest in topics such as morality, cooperation, altruism, wisdom, meaning, purpose, resilience, hope, flow, human growth, courage, empathy, spirituality, health, public service, self-control, emotional intelligence, and character strengths. The past decade especially has witnessed a surge in research on exceptional individuals who best exemplify these positive qualities: heroes and heroic leaders.

Heroism science is a multiple disciplinary field which seeks to understand heroism, the hero’s journey and heroic leadership through three lenses. First, scholars seek to understand the origins of heroism. Second, they aim to identify the many different types of heroism. Third, they seek to illuminate the many processes associated with heroism. These processes can be biological, psychological, sociocultural, and more.

Heroism scientists use of a mix of traditional and new approaches in a wide variety of settings — pedagogy, crisis management, healthcare, counseling, workforce, community development, popular media, online activism, human rights, international relations, digital humanities, to name a few. Heroism science is part of a broader movement that aims to foster holistic well-being, promote heroic awareness and action, civic responsibility and engagement, and build resilient individuals and communities.

As Editor of the field’s flagship journal, Heroism Science, I’m happy to report that the growing multidiscipline of heroism science is doing quite well.

The journal has published dozens of articles authored by the top scholars in the field. In the past two years, there have been over 25,000 downloads of articles published in the journal.  In addition, three special issues in the journal have enjoyed great success. The latest, our special issue on whistleblowers as heroes, has just gotten off the ground and is proving to be especially interesting.

Here are the stated aims of the journal:

Heroism Science is a peer-reviewed open source research journal that aims to advance heroism science theory, research, and application from a broad range of disciplinary perspectives to researchers and the broader community. Contributions from all disciplines are welcome, and cross-disciplinary work, student contributions, non-Western perspectives, and approaches that address racial, ethnic and gender disparities and issues are especially welcome. Heroism Science is the official journal of the Heroic Imagination Project.

I am especially grateful to our Associate Editor, Elaine Kinsella, and to our Production Editor, Smaragda Spyrou. We’d be in dire straights without the contributions of these two outstanding colleagues.

Elaine, in particular, is to be commended for successfully co-hosting (with Eric Igou) the latest biennial Heroism Science conference. The meeting was intended to be in Ireland in 2020, but with the pandemic Elaine and Eric had to postpone until 2021. They wisely decided to make the conference a virtual one, and the entire event was a rousing triumph.

The next heroism science conference will be hosted by Peter Bray in New Zealand in 2023.

Heroism scientists have recently started a Listserve that communicates the latest activities in the field and allows for an open discussion of topics of interest to devotees of heroes and heroism. If you’d like to be included in this Listserve, please contact Golan Shahar at Ben-Gurion University.

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Cognitive Biases That Can Undermine Good Leadership

By Scott T. Allison

People are known to distort reality and show bias in their judgments in systematic ways. Leaders themselves are all-too human in demonstrating these cognitive biases.  Steven J. Stroessner and Brett N. Hu at Barnard College have recently written about these biases in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies, co-edited by George R. Goethals, Scott T. Allison, and Georgia J. Sorenson, which will be published in 2023.

According to Stroessner and Hu, there are three classes of cognitive biases that leadership must be especially careful in navigating. These biases are: (1) conservative biases; (2) information processing biases; and (3) egocentric biases.

1. Conservative Biases

Write Stroessner and Hu: “People tend to be excessively conservative regarding information processing, regularly forming premature conclusions, holding them too firmly given new information, and defending them even when they are no longer tenable given changing conditions. Therefore, leaders regularly demonstrate a status quo bias, a preference to maintain current states.”

One tragic example is when political leaders justify the continuation of a war based on the number of lives already lost rather than on the prospects for a successful outcome. In the early 1970s, the US remained in the Vietnam conflict despite knowing that the war was unwinnable. Leaders’ excuse at the time was that “honor” needed to preserved.

Leaders also show a confirmatory bias, looking for information that confirms their opinions while simultaneously ignoring contradictory information. Confirmatory bias at a group level can lead to groupthink, a diseased form of group decision making in which group members suppress arguments that challenge a leader’s expressed preference.

2. Information Processing Biases

Leaders must gather information to make decisions, and at times leaders are over-reliant on simple rules of thumb called heuristics. The availability heuristic involves the ease with which information can be accessed from memory. For example, people tend to erroneously judge that dying from a tornado is more common than dying from stomach cancer. More people die from the latter but media coverage focuses on the former.

The representativeness heuristic refers to an over-reliance on the similarity of an event to a typical instance of that event. For example, people erroneously believe that six coin-tosses heads-tails-tails-heads-tails-heads are more “random” than six tosses of heads-heads-heads-tails-tails-tails.

A leader’s judgments can also be biased by how a problem is framed. Psychologists have found that the pain associated with loss is greater than the pleasure associated with gain. Thus, a decision problem framed as a loss will lead to different judgments — often a more conservative judgment — than the same problem framed as a gain.

3. Egocentric Biases

The egocentric bias refers the tendency to view oneself or one’s group as superior to others.

The false consensus bias leads people to think that their own preferences and views are widely shared. When this bias is challenged by people expressing opposing views, they tend to be criticized or dismissed.

The self-serving bias refers to the tendency of people to view themselves in a favorable light, exaggerating positive attributes and minimizing negative ones. For example, people view themselves as more moral and competent than others. This bias explains the all too common tendency of leaders to take responsibility for successes but avoid blame for failures.

Ingroup biases involve the belief that one’s own group is better than other groups. While ingroup bias can facilitate ingroup cohesion and self-esteem within the group, it leads to prejudice and discrimination directed toward outgroup members.

The more leaders are made aware of these biases, the better their decision making can be. Awareness does not always eliminate cognitive biases, but they can reduce them. Here is the reference/citation for the encyclopedia:

Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., & Sorenson, G. J. (Eds.) (2023). The SAGE Encyclopedia of Leadership Studies. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.

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