The meaning of hero is shaped by one’s culture, personal experience, the time in which one lives, and the reasons why a figure is chosen as a hero. The ancient Greeks considered a hero as a person with divine association that made a decision to pursue a quest, exhibited courage and strength often in the face of adversity, and represented what the culture considered good and noble. Joseph Campbell advanced a modern idea of a hero, most notably in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that not only was rooted in his study of myths worldwide, but that also drew upon analytical or Jungian psychology. Campbell portrayed a hero as an individual on a journey who increasingly gained self-awareness while examining the personal feelings and behaviors exhibited on the quest. A hero leaves the ordinary life on an extraordinary quest against almost insurmountable odds, yet achieves a decisive victory and returns with the power to better the ordinary life. Erikson suggested that cultural heroes or reference idols exert profound influence on individuals and cultures. For children, heroes, with their accompanying myths and legends, are part of the material from which their dreams and dramas are derived. Playing out hero themes is one way children come to understand their society, their role in it, and their potential for positive impact on it. As representations of a larger culture, cultural heroes offer insight into societal belief systems. What makes heroes powerful cultural forces is how they embody important cultural values and ordinary human qualities, which helps explain a growing distinction between cultural and personal heroes.
Whereas cultural heroes typically are public figures, personal heroes may be public or proximal figures. The latter suggests that an individual might have a direct relation with a personal hero. Whereas a traditional hero pursued a higher calling or a transcendental good, such as Joan of Arc’s devotion to God or an Enlightenment figure’s commitment to truth, in more recent times a hero might seek either a higher calling or good in ordinary life, thus the emergence of personal heroes. Some suggest that the “loss” of the traditional or cultural hero illustrates contemporary society’s moral bankruptcy, while others suggest that a decreasing importance placed upon such heroes reflects our culture’s changing conception of a hero.
In his social development theory Vygotsky hypothesized that one’s higher mental processes originate from social processes and social relations. Building on Vygotsky’s work, Bandura through his social cognitive theory suggested that one learns by observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes and emotional reactions of other people. Accordingly, our personal identity results from the interaction of personal factors, behavior, and the environment. There is a cognitive side to personal identity or character development, one that includes perspective-taking, moral reasoning and thoughtful decision-making. Since heroes represent the epitome of the attitudes and behaviors most desired by the culture, an emphasis on not simply modeling such attitudes, but illustrating how to reason through and make thoughtful decisions related to such attitudes and behaviors can enhance people’s sense of identity and efficacy. While limited, research suggests that identifying with heroes shapes one’s attitudes and behaviors, such as one study where researchers concluded that a series of entertainment education programs changed people’s sexual behaviors through the use of everyday heroes that modeled the desired behaviors.
If knowledge is socially constructed as Vygotsky and Bandura theorized, then each culture defines who and what qualify as cultural heroes. In turn, as time passes the culture’s conception of hero is redefined and its pantheon of heroes changes. Charting U.S. society’s changing perceptions of Christopher Columbus, who periodically has been portrayed as a hero, villain, genius and visionary, illustrates how the idea of what characterizes a hero is sensitive both to time and to changes in cultural values. This point is supported by research, such as a study by Pena, French and Doerann of a 1950s and a 1980s television hero where researchers concluded that the 1980s hero was more fearful and self-critical than his 1950s counterpart.
While in the US hero has become a gender neutral term, some of the defining characteristics such as strength and courage, for example, are still present in television superheroes. The growing number of female superheroes as the focal point of television series illustrates though the growing cultural acceptance of females in hero roles, supporting the time-sensitive nature of what characterizes a hero. While males typically identify male figures as heroes, the research is divided on whether females are more likely to choose male or female figures.
If a culture continually redefines its values and therefore its cultural heroes, it is reasonable to assume that individuals do the same. According to Piaget, social-arbitrary knowledge, such as language, values, rules, morality and symbol systems, arises from interactions that occur in one’s experiential world and from one’s reflection on those interactions. Given that each person’s experiential world is unique, one’s past personal experiences influence how one defines a hero and therefore who they select. Since individuals may perceive their environment differently than the larger culture, this might explain the distinction between one’s personal heroes and the larger cultural heroes. As representative of the larger culture, cultural heroes are public figures. While one’s personal heroes might consist of cultural heroes, i.e., individuals that have transcended ordinary life, they are as likely to represent proximal, private figures leading ordinary lives. What is unclear is whether there is a relation between one’s heroes and one’s age and/or developmental level.
A conception of hero, and which figure is chosen as a hero, partially depends upon the purpose that the hero serves and the context in which the person identifies with a hero. Research in physical education, grounded in goal achievement theory, demonstrated that when young people used sports heroes as exemplars of individuals attaining personal goals, they were more successful in accomplishing their own goals. The desire for the physical education teachers to encourage and enable their students to attain their goals narrowed the possible heroes to sports figures that were successful athletes. Similarly, in another study a group of educational and political public figures chose other public figures as their heroes. Knowing who a person has identified as a hero is but a first step in understanding the purpose for the identification. In one study by Zehnder and Calvert adolescents were shown portions of a Batman film. Participants chose to identify with Batman not because of his aggressive, at times violent nature, but due to his compassion and conscience.
On many popular surveys respondents identify entertainment and/or sports figures as their heroes, which cause those giving the survey to question if celebrity worship has replaced hero identification. Studies though where participants are asked to explain their choices suggest that one’s celebrity status is not necessarily the reason for the choice. While several studies have investigated patterns to hero identification, such patterns have proven difficult to determine since while such surveys and studies typically operate from a certain construct of hero, they fail to ascertain the respondents’ conception of hero. The definition of hero also varies across the surveys and studies such as a New Zealand study where celebrity and hero were almost synonymous.
Heroes for adults and youth are drawn from all segments of society. Youth in Ireland, Slovenia and the US, for example, have identified figures ranging from family, community, entertainment/sports, politics, religion, and the arts and sciences as their heroes. The characteristics that they associated with a hero were equally diverse, varying from physical traits such as beauty, personal traits such as caring and honesty, and individual accomplishments. The question of whether a specific accomplishment, such as a heroic act, qualifies a person as a hero illustrates the tension between the traditional conception of a cultural hero and heroes in ordinary life. Since courage and strength are often considered defining attributes of a hero, a person that performs a heroic act is often elevated to hero status. Other attributes of a traditional cultural hero, such as attainment of self-knowledge and the making of a conscious decision, are overlooked.
SEE ALSO: ▸ Courage ▸ Paragons
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