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Essays About Heroes: 5 Examples And Topic Ideas

Here, we’ll look at examples of essays about heroes and questions that can be used as topics for essays about an imagined or real hero.

A few different images likely come to mind when you hear the word hero. You may imagine Superman flying above the world with his superpower of flight. You may imagine a personal hero, a real person who has made a significant impact on your life for the better. You might think of a true hero as someone who has shown heroic qualities in the public eye, working to help ordinary people through difficult situations.

When writing an essay about your life hero, it’s important to consider the qualities of that person that make them stand out to you. Whether you choose to write an essay about how your mom got you through tough times and became your role model or about a political figure who made a difference in the lives of people in history, it’s key to not just focus on the person’s actions—you’ll also want to focus on the qualities that allowed them to act heroically.

Here, we’ll explore examples of hero essays and potential topics to consider when writing about a hero.

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Examples Of Essays About Heroes

  • 1. These Are The Heroes Of The Coronavirus Pandemic By Ruth Marcus
  • 2. Why Teachers Are My Heroes By Joshua Muskin
  • 3. Martin Luther King Jr.—Civil Rights Activist & Hero By Kathy Weiser-Alexander

4. Steve Prefontaine: The Track Of A Hero By Bill O’Brian

5. forget hamilton, burr is the real hero by carey wallace, topic ideas for essays about heroes, 1. what makes a hero, 2. what are the most important characteristics of heroes in literature, 3. what constitutes a heroic act, 4. is selflessness required for heroism, 1.  these are the heroes of the coronavirus pandemic  by ruth marcus.

Examples of essays about heroes: These Are The Heroes Of The Coronavirus Pandemic By Ruth Marcus

“Is this what they signed up for? There is some danger inherent in the ordinary practice of medicine, but not this much. I confess: I do not know that I would do the same in their circumstances; I am not sure I am so generous or so brave. If my child were graduating from medical school, how would I deal with her being sent, inadequately protected, into an emergency room? If my husband were a physician, would I send him off to the hospital — or let him back into the house in the interim?” Ruth Marcus

Healthcare workers have had no choice but to go above and beyond in recent years. In this essay, Marcus discusses the heroism of those in the healthcare field. He delves into the traits (including selflessness and courage) that make doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers heroes.

2.  Why Teachers Are My Heroes   By Joshua Muskin

“Teachers are my heroes because they accept this responsibility and try extremely hard to do this well even when the conditions in which they work are far from ideal; at least most do. Our jobs as society, education systems, and parents is to do our best to be strong allies to teachers, since their success is essential to ours.” Joshua Muskin

In this essay, Dr. Muskin discusses the many challenges teachers face and what parents, administrators, and education researchers can do to help teachers support students. Muskin explains that most teachers go above and beyond the call of duty to serve their classrooms.

3.  Martin Luther King Jr.—Civil Rights Activist & Hero   By Kathy Weiser-Alexander

“During this nonviolent protest, activists used boycotts, sit-ins, and marches to protest segregation and unfair hiring practices that caught the attention of the entire world. However, his tactics were put to the test when police brutality was used against the marchers, and King was arrested. But, his voice was not silenced, as he wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to refute his critics.” Kathy Weiser-Alexander

In this essay, Weiser-Alexander details both the traits and the actions of Dr. King before and during the civil rights movement. The author touches on King’s commitment to justice, persistence, and willingness to stand for his beliefs despite difficult circumstances.

“I remember this so vividly because Prefontaine was a hero to me, a hero in a way that no one was before, or really has been since. A British commentator once called him “an athletic Beatle.” If so, his persona was much more Lennon than McCartney. Actually, I thought of him more as Mick Jagger — or ultimately James Dean.” Bill O’Brian

A hero to many in the running world, Prefontaine’s confidence, unique style, and unmatched athletic ability have been heralded for decades. In this essay, O’Brian shares how he, as a distance runner during the era of Pre, related to his struggles and ambition.

“Burr fought against an ugly tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the young republic, led by Hamilton’s Federalist party, which suggested that anyone without English heritage was a second-class citizen, and even challenged the rights of non-Anglos to hold office. In response, Burr insisted that anyone who contributed to society deserved all the rights of any other citizen, no matter their background.” Carey Wallace

In this essay, Wallace explains why Aaron Burr, the lifelong nemesis of founding father Alexander Hamilton, should be considered a historical hero. This essay exposes someone seen as a villain but much of society with a different take on their history. 

It can be interesting to think about your definition of a hero. When describing what the term hero means to you, you may want to choose a person (or a few people) you look up to as a hero to solidify your point. You might want to include fictional characters (such as those in the Marvel universe) and real-life brave souls, such as police officers and firefighters.

A word of caution: stay away from the cliche opening of describing how the dictionary defines a hero. Instead, lead-in with a personal story about a hero who has affected your life. While talking about a public figure as a hero is acceptable, you may find it easier to write about someone close to you who you feel has displayed heroic qualities. Writing about a family member or friend who has shown up as a heroic main character in your life can be just as exciting as writing about a real or imagined superhero.

From Beowulf to Marvel comics, heroes in literature take on many different traits. When writing an essay on what trait makes a hero come alive in a short story, novel, or comic, choose a few of your favorite heroes and find common themes that they share.

Perhaps your favorite heroes are selfless and are willing to put themselves last in the name of sacrifice for others. Perhaps they’re able to dig deep into the truth, being honest even when it’s hard, for the greater good. There’s no need to list endless heroes to make your point—choosing three or four heroes from literature can be a great way to support your argument about what characteristics define heroism in literature.

When someone is named a hero in real life, we often picture them saving people from a burning building or performing a difficult surgical operation. It can be difficult to pin down exactly what constitutes a heroic act. When writing about what constitutes a heroic act, think about people who go above and beyond, performing feats of courage, honesty, and bravery to support themselves or others. When writing about what constitutes a heroic act, discuss real-life or literary examples of heroes at work.

To many people, being a hero means giving back to others. While giving something away or trading in one’s well-being for others can certainly be seen as a heroic act, many people wonder if selflessness is required for heroism or if a hero can serve the greater good in a way that also supports their happiness. When writing about whether selflessness is required for heroism, choose examples from literature and real-life to support your point.

Tip: If writing an essay sounds like a lot of work, simplify it. Write a simple 5 paragraph essay instead.

If you’re still stuck, check out our available resource of essay writing topics .

essay about a heroes

Amanda has an M.S.Ed degree from the University of Pennsylvania in School and Mental Health Counseling and is a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer. She has experience writing magazine articles, newspaper articles, SEO-friendly web copy, and blog posts.

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110 My Hero Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

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Everyone has heroes in their lives ''' people they look up to, admire, and aspire to be like. Whether it's a celebrity, a family member, a teacher, or even a fictional character, heroes can come in all shapes and sizes. Writing an essay about your hero can be a great way to express your admiration and appreciation for them. If you're struggling to come up with a topic for your hero essay, here are 110 ideas and examples to help get you started:

  • My Mom/Dad: The person who has always been there for me, no matter what.
  • My Grandparent: A wise and loving figure in my life.
  • My Sibling: The person I look up to and learn from every day.
  • My Best Friend: The person who always has my back and lifts me up when I'm feeling down.
  • My Teacher: The person who has inspired me to learn and grow.
  • My Coach: The person who pushes me to be my best self.
  • My Favorite Author: The person whose words have shaped my worldview.
  • My Favorite Musician: The person whose music speaks to my soul.
  • My Favorite Actor/Actress: The person whose performances have moved me.
  • My Favorite Artist: The person whose art has touched my heart.
  • My Favorite Athlete: The person whose dedication and skill inspire me.
  • My Favorite Activist: The person who fights for what they believe in.
  • My Favorite Historical Figure: The person whose legacy continues to impact the world.
  • My Favorite Fictional Character: The person who embodies the qualities I strive for.
  • My Role Model: The person who sets a positive example for me to follow.
  • My Mentor: The person who guides me and helps me grow.
  • My Hero from History: The person who changed the world for the better.
  • My Hero from Literature: The character who has stayed with me long after I finished reading their story.
  • My Hero from Film/TV: The character who has inspired me with their courage and strength.
  • My Hero from Music: The musician whose lyrics have spoken to me in times of need.
  • My Hero from Sports: The athlete who has shown me what it takes to succeed.
  • My Hero from Science: The scientist who has made groundbreaking discoveries.
  • My Hero from Politics: The leader who fights for justice and equality.
  • My Hero from Art: The artist whose work has challenged and inspired me.
  • My Hero from Business: The entrepreneur who has built a successful career while giving back to their community.
  • My Hero from Technology: The innovator who has revolutionized the way we live and work.
  • My Hero from Medicine: The doctor who has saved lives and improved healthcare for all.
  • My Hero from Education: The teacher who goes above and beyond to help their students succeed.
  • My Hero from Humanitarian Work: The volunteer who dedicates their time and resources to helping those in need.
  • My Hero from Environmentalism: The activist who fights to protect our planet and its resources.
  • My Hero from Social Justice: The advocate who works to create a more just and equitable society.
  • My Hero from Animal Rights: The activist who fights to protect and care for animals.
  • My Hero from LGBTQ+ Rights: The advocate who fights for the rights and equality of LGBTQ+ individuals.
  • My Hero from Disability Rights: The advocate who fights for the rights and inclusion of individuals with disabilities.
  • My Hero from Women's Rights: The advocate who fights for gender equality and women's empowerment.
  • My Hero from Civil Rights: The activist who fights for racial equality and social justice.
  • My Hero from Peace and Nonviolence: The advocate who works to promote peace and nonviolence in a world torn by conflict.
  • My Hero from Community Service: The volunteer who dedicates their time and energy to improving their community.
  • My Hero from Public Service: The leader who serves their country and community with integrity and dedication.
  • My Hero from the Military: The service member who sacrifices their own safety to protect their country and its citizens.
  • My Hero from Law Enforcement: The officer who puts their life on the line to keep their community safe.
  • My Hero from Firefighting: The firefighter who bravely battles fires to save lives and property.
  • My Hero from Emergency Medical Services: The paramedic who provides life-saving care in times of crisis.
  • My Hero from Nursing: The nurse who provides compassionate care to patients in need.
  • My Hero from Medicine: The doctor who saves lives and improves the health of their patients.
  • My Hero from Mental Health: The therapist who helps individuals overcome their struggles and find healing.
  • My Hero from Addiction Recovery: The counselor who supports individuals on their journey to sobriety.
  • My Hero from Disability Services: The advocate who fights for the rights and inclusion of individuals with disabilities.
  • My Hero from Homelessness Services: The social worker who helps individuals find housing and support.
  • My Hero from Youth Services: The mentor who supports and guides young people in need.
  • My Hero from Elderly Care: The caregiver who provides compassionate support to elderly individuals.
  • My Hero from Animal Welfare: The activist who fights to protect and care for animals in need.
  • My Hero from Environmentalism: The advocate who works to protect our planet and its resources.
  • My Hero from Social Justice: The advocate who fights for equality and justice for all.
  • My Hero from LGBTQ+ Rights: The activist who fights for the rights and equality of LGBTQ+ individuals.
  • My Hero from Education: The teacher who goes above and beyond to help their students

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If you are writing a hero essay, you have to describe a particular person who did something great. This can be a story about brave heroes of the World War II that were fighting with an enemy to save other people. You may write about a smart scientist who invented something significant to simplify our life. Maybe you even have your own hero? Your main task here is to write about personal qualities to explain to your readers why this certain person is a great hero. It's important to find strong words to describe this particular man or woman, there are a lot of things to write about. This type of paper requires good skills in writing and a lot of time. We have created this detailed instruction to help people in writing a strong hero essay. Read all pages of our article, it will help to figure out how to make a successful story that will attract many readers. Follow our simple hints, don't forget to plan your time beforehand! In case you lack time or ideas, remember that StudyCrumb can help you with any academic essay. Just say " Write my essay cheap " and our professionals will create a wonderful paper on any topic. 

4 Steps of Creating a Brilliant Story About Your Hero

These are the main steps that will help people to make a good essay.

  • Brainstorm your ideas to choose your hero. You are free to write about anyone: from a heroic person that saves people and their lives to a fictional character from a cartoon for children. The most important thing is to mention the qualities of the chosen person to show your readers their power and strength. Find a character analysis example to base on.
  • Make a clear outline for your future work. You may think it's not necessary to do it at all, but creating an outline is an important step in writing; if you are traveling in the unknown place, you definitely have a map, don't you? The same is with creating your paper. An outline is your map to guide you through the process of writing, that's why you shouldn't neglect this step.
  • Write a draft of your essay. Here everything is simple: just follow your outline, don't try to pay attention to grammar and punctuation. You will have a chance to fix all errors later. Try to be concentrated on your writing.
  • Revise your hero essay to correct all mistakes and misprints. We suggest taking some time for rest after you have finished your paper and then start editing your work. It's more effective to check the paper with refreshed eyes. We suggest using various online programs to run online spell check and correct grammar mistakes.

How to Make a Good Outline for My Hero Essay?

As we already mentioned, an essay outline is an important part of writing your story about heroes; here is how you should build it:

  • Introduction Here it's important to introduce your hero to readers: explain why this person is very important to you. Don't forget to provide your audience with a short background.
  • The main part Here you should describe all qualities and characteristics of your hero to people. Provide heroic acts in details, don't forget about examples to support your argument. For instance, don't just write that a person was very brave. Provide a story that will prove it: tell your readers how your courage and character saved someone's life or did something significant for others.
  • Conclusion This is a part of your paper where you have to rephrase the main idea of your writing to finish your essay logically. Don't make it too big, never try to put anything new here. A good ending should be a short accord in your work.

Ideas for Writing an Interesting Paper About a Hero

If you feel stuck with your writing, we have a bunch of interesting ideas you can choose from:

  • Make a story about a real hero from books or newspapers. This can be an essay about a brave soldier who fought in the war, this may be a work about a fireman with courage who saved a lot of people and children from fire.
  • Write about a fictional hero. Many people read a lot of stories about Superman or Batman - they are big heroes. It's possible to create a bright and interesting paper about such characters. Keep in mind you should describe their feats and achievement and explain to your readers why they have to admire them.
  • Famous people : actors, politicians, scientists, etc. can be your heroes easily. You can make an exciting story about a movie star; it's possible to write about a great scientist you admire a lot. Maybe you even have figured out your future profession thanks to these people? This is a great idea to create your hero story about!
  • Sometimes even ordinary people can become heroes. Maybe your best friend saved a little puppy fighting with a couple of angry dogs? Your uncle seems to be a brave hero because he is a zoologist who fights with poachers to make this world better? Feel free to write about such heroes too. They are very important for all us.

5 Tips to Create a Perfect and Bright Work About a Hero

Follow these effective hints to write an exciting hero paper and get a high grade:

  • Write about someone your audience doesn't expect to hear. When people hear a word "hero", they have brave knights with courage in their mind. Try to catch people attention with a story about a homeless man who saved a kitten from cars or about a neighbor's son who helps the old people of your district (buys food for them every day).
  • Usually, people expect reading from hero essays about such qualities as bravery, fame, and courage. It's possible to make an exciting story about a character who is very kind or extremely optimistic even in a bad situation. Surprise your readers with something they don't expect! This is a very effective thing when you're making a hero essay.
  • Think out of the box - feel free to write about anything that comes to your mind. Keep in mind that you should support your argument with examples. Describe actions, not just how the chosen person looks! A huge smile plus nice face cannot convince readers you are writing about a kind character. If you will mention that a young man helped old woman to cross the street, then it proves this is an act of kindness.
  • Whether you're making a story about a real person or write about a hero from cartoons, movies, or comics, write about the facts you are familiar with. There is no reason to use your fantasy, trying to provide readers with a fairy tale.
  • Make a bright introduction to grab the attention of your readers. People won't read a boring story, your main task here is to motivate them to read the entire work. There are several ways of creating an interesting beginning. Try to start your essay with a quote, put a question, or provide the audience with an anecdote. Just try to be non-ordinary to write a creative essay !

Why Is It Important to Read Hero Essay Examples?

Needless to say, it's quite useful to read hero essay examples to create your own interesting story. Reading helps to refine writing skills, we suggest searching for essay samples, no matter what kind of paper you're working on. Here we want to share our successful sample of an interesting hero essay that may be helpful to read:  

My dad is a great hero to me. Even if he doesn't do anything special in his everyday job, I admire him a lot. He is a lawyer who helps to make equitable justice. My dad taught me that it's quite important to be an honest person. My dad is a great hero to me. Even if he doesn't do anything special in his everyday job, I admire him a lot. He is a lawyer who helps to make equitable justice. My dad taught me that it's quite important to be an honest person. At the start, that cruel man tried to defame my father's client - he wanted to make him guilty in everything; my dad already had evidence against the man so he suggested him staying quiet. It didn't work, the next day someone offered my father a bribe. I can't write the sum here - this money would be enough for all us to live without working anymore. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, we needed a lot of money. My father didn't accept that: he rejected the deal and he found a man who offered a bribe. Nowadays, that man with his sly partner are in jail. The father's client was acquitted in the court from a criminal charge. I already have chosen my future profession - I want to be a lawyer like my dad. I admire this person because he is a strong hero for me because he is the most honest man I know.

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Why Heroes are Important

The impact of role models on the ideals to which we aspire.

When I was 16 years old, I read Henry David Thoreau's book Walden for the first time, and it changed my life. I read about living deliberately, about sucking the marrow out of life, about not, when I had come to die, discovering that I had not lived, and I was electrified. Somehow he convinced me that living deliberately meant becoming a philosopher, and I have not looked back since. And I try as often as I can to remind myself of Thoreau's warning to all philosophy professors: "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." If - horrible thought - I should fail to earn tenure here, I would largely blame that damned quotation. But even if that disaster should strike, I know I would find solace by asking how Henry would respond to such a setback, and I know I would be a better man by following his example. Thoreau is one of my dearest heroes, and I do not know who I would be without him.

The term "hero" comes from the ancient Greeks. For them, a hero was a mortal who had done something so far beyond the normal scope of human experience that he left an immortal memory behind him when he died, and thus received worship like that due the gods. Many of these first heroes were great benefactors of humankind: Hercules, the monster killer; Asclepius, the first doctor; Dionysus, the creator of Greek fraternities. But people who had committed unthinkable crimes were also called heroes; Oedipus and Medea, for example, received divine worship after their deaths as well. Originally, heroes were not necessarily good, but they were always extraordinary; to be a hero was to expand people's sense of what was possible for a human being.

Today, it is much harder to detach the concept of heroism from morality; we only call heroes those whom we admire and wish to emulate. But still the concept retains that original link to possibility. We need heroes first and foremost because our heroes help define the limits of our aspirations. We largely define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals -- things like courage, honor, and justice -- largely define us. Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy. A person who chooses Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony as a hero is going to have a very different sense of what human excellence involves than someone who chooses, say, Paris Hilton, or the rapper 50 Cent. And because the ideals to which we aspire do so much to determine the ways in which we behave, we all have a vested interest in each person having heroes, and in the choice of heroes each of us makes.

That is why it is so important for us as a society, globally and locally, to try to shape these choices. Of course, this is a perennial moral issue, but there are warning signs that we need to refocus our attention on the issue now. Consider just a few of these signs:

o A couple years ago the administrators of the Barron Prize for Young Heroes polled American teenagers and found only half could name a personal hero. Superman and Spiderman were named twice as often as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Lincoln. It is clear that our media make it all too easy for us to confuse celebrity with excellence; of the students who gave an answer, more than half named an athlete, a movie star, or a musician. One in ten named winners on American Idol as heroes.

o Gangsta rap is a disaster for heroism. Just this week, director Spike Lee lamented the fact that, while his generation grew up idolizing great civil rights leaders, today young people in his community aspire to become pimps and strippers. Surely no one wants their children to get their role models from Gangsta rap and a hyper materialistic, misogynistic hiphop culture, but our communities are finding it difficult to make alternative role models take hold.

o And sometimes, the problem we face is that devotion to heroes is very strong, but directed toward the wrong heroes. In the Muslim world, Osama bin Laden and his like still have a widespread heroic appeal. We can tell how we are doing in the struggle for Muslim hearts and minds by the degree to which this continues to be true.

So what must we do? How should we address the problem? Part of the answer is personal. It never hurts us to remind ourselves who our own heroes are and what they represent for us, and to ask ourselves whether we are doing all we can to live up to these ideals. Not long ago there was a movement afoot to ask always, "What would Jesus do?" I'd like to see people asking questions like that, about Jesus or others, all the time. I confess I get a little thrill every time I see a protest poster asking, "Who would Jesus bomb?" That's heroism doing its work, right there. Moreover, those of us who are teachers - and all of us are teachers of our own children at least - have a special opportunity to introduce heroes to those we teach. And teaching about heroes really isn't hard; heroic lives have their appeal built in, all we need to do is make an effort to tell the stories. I assure you, the reason those students didn't choose Lincoln and King and Gandhi as heroes was not that they had heard their stories and dismissed them. It is our job to tell the stories. Tell your students what a difference people of courage and nobility and genius have made to the world. Just tell the stories! We should recommit to that purpose. Start by going home tonight and listing your five most important heroes.

But part of the answer to our problem is broader. It is clear that the greatest obstacle to the appreciation and adoption of heroes in our society is pervasive and corrosive cynicism and skepticism. It was widely claimed not long ago that 9/11 signalled the end of irony, but it is clear now that the reports of irony's death were greatly exaggerated. This obstacle of cynicism has been seriously increased by scandals like the steroids mess in Major League Baseball, by our leaders' opportunistic use of heroic imagery for short term political gain, and by the Pentagon's stories of glorious soldiers like Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman that - by no fault of the soldiers involved - turned out to be convenient fabrications.

The best antidote to this cynicism is realism about the limits of human nature. We are cynical because so often our ideals have been betrayed. Washington and Jefferson held slaves, Martin Luther King is accused of philandering and plagiarizing, just about everybody had sex with someone they shouldn't, and so on. We need to separate out the things that make our heroes noteworthy, and forgive the shortcomings that blemish their heroic perfection. My own hero Thoreau had his share of blemishes. For instance, although he was supposed to be living totally independently out by Walden Pond, he went home to Mother on the weekends. But such carping and debunking misses the point. True, the false steps and frailties of heroic people make them more like us, and since most of us are not particularly heroic, that may seem to reduce the heroes' stature. But this dynamic pulls in the other direction as well: these magnificent spirits, these noble souls, amazingly, they are like us, they are human too. And perhaps, then, what was possible for them is possible for us. They stumbled, they wavered, they made fools of themselves - but nonetheless they rose and accomplished deeds of triumphant beauty. Perhaps we might do so too. Cynicism is too often merely an excuse for sparing ourselves the effort.

Again, the critical moral contribution of heroes is the expansion of our sense of possibility. If we most of us, as Thoreau said, live lives of quiet desperation, it is because our horizons of possibility are too cramped. Heroes can help us lift our eyes a little higher. Immanuel Kant said that "from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." That may well be true. But some have used that warped, knotted timber to build more boldly and beautifully than others, and we may all benefit by their examples. Heaven knows we need those examples now.

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Greater Good Science Center • Magazine • In Action • In Education

What Makes a Hero?

This month, Greater Good features videos of a presentation by Philip Zimbardo, the world-renowned psychologist perhaps best known for his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. In his talk, Zimbardo discusses the psychology of evil and of heroism, exploring why good people sometimes turn bad and how we can encourage more people to perform heroic acts. In this excerpt from his talk, he zeroes in on his research and educational program designed to foster the “heroic imagination.”

More on Heroism

Watch the video of Philip Zimbardo's Greater Good talk on heroism.

Read his essay on " The Banality of Heroism ," which further explores the conditions that can promote heroism vs. evil.

Read this Greater Good essay on the "psychology of the bystander."

Learn more about Zimbardo's Heroic Imagination Project.

What makes us good? What makes us evil?

Research has uncovered many answers to the second question: Evil can be fostered by dehumanization, diffusion of responsibility, obedience to authority, unjust systems, group pressure, moral disengagement, and anonymity, to name a few.

essay about a heroes

But when we ask why people become heroic, research doesn’t yet have an answer. It could be that heroes have more compassion or empathy; maybe there’s a hero gene; maybe it’s because of their levels of oxytocin—research by neuroeconomist Paul Zak has shown that this “love hormone” in the brain increases the likelihood you’ll demonstrate altruism. We don’t know for sure.

I believe that heroism is different than altruism and compassion. For the last five years, my colleagues and I have been exploring the nature and roots of heroism, studying exemplary cases of heroism and surveying thousands of people about their choices to act (or not act) heroically. In that time, we’ve come to define heroism as an activity with several parts.

First, it’s performed in service to others in need—whether that’s a person, group, or community—or in defense of certain ideals. Second, it’s engaged in voluntarily, even in military contexts, as heroism remains an act that goes beyond something required by military duty. Third, a heroic act is one performed with recognition of possible risks and costs, be they to one’s physical health or personal reputation, in which the actor is willing to accept anticipated sacrifice. Finally, it is performed without external gain anticipated at the time of the act.

Simply put, then, the key to heroism is a concern for other people in need—a concern to defend a moral cause, knowing there is a personal risk, done without expectation of reward.

By that definition, then, altruism is heroism light—it doesn’t always involve a serious risk. Compassion is a virtue that may lead to heroism, but we don’t know that it does. We’re just now starting to scientifically distinguish heroism from these other concepts and zero in on what makes a hero.

My work on heroism follows 35 years of research in which I studied the psychology of evil, including my work on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment . The two lines of research aren’t as different as they might seem; they’re actually two sides of the same coin.

A key insight from research on heroism so far is that the very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.

Take the Holocaust. Christians who helped Jews were in the same situation as other civilians who helped imprison or kill Jews, or ignored their suffering. The situation provided the impetus to act heroically or malevolently. Why did some people choose one path or the other?

Another key insight from my research has been that there’s no clear line between good and evil. Instead, the line is permeable; people can cross back and forth between it.

This is an idea wonderfully represented in an illusion by M. C. Escher, at left. When you squint and focus on the white as the figures and the black as the background, you see a world full of angels and tutus dancing around happily. But now focus on the black as the figures and the white as the background: Now it’s a world full of demons.

What Escher’s telling us is that the world is filled with angels and devils, goodness and badness, and these dark and light aspects of human nature are our basic yin and yang. That is, we all are born with the capacity to be anything. Because of our incredible brains, anything that is imaginable becomes possible, anything that becomes possible can get transformed into action, for better or for worse. 

Some people argue humans are born good or born bad; I think that’s nonsense. We are all born with this tremendous capacity to be anything, and we get shaped by our circumstances—by the family or the culture or the time period in which we happen to grow up, which are accidents of birth; whether we grow up in a war zone versus peace; if we grow up in poverty rather than prosperity.

George Bernard Shaw captured this point in the preface to his great play “Major Barbara”: “Every reasonable man and woman is a potential scoundrel and a potential good citizen. What a man is depends upon his character what’s inside. What he does and what we think of what he does depends on upon his circumstances.”

So each of us may possess the capacity to do terrible things. But we also posses an inner hero; if stirred to action, that inner hero is capable of performing tremendous goodness for others.

Another conclusion from my research is that few people do evil and fewer act heroically. Between these extremes in the bell curve of humanity are the masses—the general population who do nothing, who I call the “reluctant heroes”—those who refuse the call to action and, by doing nothing, often implicitly support the perpetrators of evil.

So on this bell curve of humanity, villains and heroes are the outliers. The reluctant heroes are the rest. What we need to discover is how to give a call to service to this general population. How do we make them aware of the evil that exists? How do we prevent them from getting seduced to the dark side?

We don’t yet have a recipe for creating heroes, but we have some clues, based on the stories of some inspiring heroes.

I love the story of a wonderful nine-year-old Chinese boy, who I call a dutiful hero. In 2008, there was a massive earthquake in China’s Szechuan province. The ceiling fell down on a school, killing almost all the kids in it. This kid escaped, and as he was running away he noticed two other kids struggling to get out. He ran back and saved them. He was later asked, “Why did you do that?” He replied, “I was the hall monitor! It was my duty, it was my job to look after my classmates!”

This perfectly illustrates what I call the “heroic imagination,” a focus on one’s duty to help and protect others. For him, it was cultivated by being assigned this role of hall monitor.

Another story: Irena Sendler was a Polish hero, a Catholic woman who saved at least 2,500 Jewish kids who were holed up in the Warsaw ghetto that the Nazis had erected. She was able to convince the parents of these kids to allow her to smuggle them out of the ghetto to safety. To do this, she organized a network.

That is a key principle of heroism: Heroes are most effective not alone but in a network. It’s through forming a network that people have the resources to bring their heroic impulses to life.

What these stories suggest is that every one of us can be a hero. Through my work on heroism, I’ve become even more convinced that acts of heroism don’t just arrive from truly exceptional people but from people placed in the right circumstance, given the necessary tools to transform compassion into heroic action.

Building on these insights, I have helped to start a program designed to learn more of heroism and to create the heroes of tomorrow.

The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) is amplifying the voice of the world’s quiet heroes, using research and education networks to promote a heroic imagination in everyone, and then empower ordinary people of all ages and nations to engage in extraordinary acts of heroism. We want to democratize the notion of heroism, to emphasize that most heroes are ordinary people; it’s the act that’s extraordinary.

There are already a lot of great heroes projects out there, such as the Giraffe Heroes Project . The HIP is unique in that it’s the only one encouraging research into heroism, because there’s very little.

Here are a few key insights from research we’ve done surveying 4,000 Americans from across the country. Each of these statements is valid after controlling for all demographic variables, such as education and socioeconomic status.

Heroes surround us. One in five—20 percent—qualify as heroes, based on the definition of heroism I provide above. Seventy-two percent report helping another person in a dangerous emergency. Sixteen percent report whistle blowing on an injustice. Six percent report sacrificing for a non-relative or stranger. Fifteen percent report defying an unjust authority. And not one of these people has been formally recognized as a hero.

Opportunity matters. Most acts of heroism occur in urban areas, where there are more people and more people in need. You’re not going to be a hero if you live in the suburbs. No shit happens in the suburbs!

Education matters. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to be a hero, I think because you are more aware of situations.

Volunteering matters. One third of all the sample who were heroes also had volunteered significantly, up to 59 hours a week.

Gender matters. Males reported performing acts of heroism more than females. I think this is because women tend not to regard a lot of their heroic actions as heroic. It’s just what they think they’re supposed to do for their family or a friend.

Race matters. Blacks were eight times more likely than whites to qualify as heroes. We think that’s in part due to the rate of opportunity. (In our next survey, we’re going to track responses by area code to see if in fact these heroes are coming from inner cities.

Personal history matters. Having survived a disaster or personal trauma makes you three times more likely to be a hero and a volunteer.

Based on these insights into heroism, we’ve put together a toolkit for potential heroes, especially young heroes in training, who already have opportunities to act heroically when they’re kids, such as by opposing bullying.

A first step is to take the “hero pledge,” a public declaration on our website that says you’re willing to be a hero in waiting. It’s a pledge “to act when confronted with a situation where I feel something is wrong,” “to develop my heroic abilities,” and “to believe in the heroic capacities within myself and others, so I can build and refine them.”

You can also take our four-week “Hero Challenge” mini-course online to help you develop your heroic muscles. The challenge may not require you to do anything heroic, but it’s training you to be heroic. And we offer more rigorous, research-based education and training programs for middle and high schools, corporations, and the millitary that make people aware of the social factors that produce passivity, inspire them to take positive civic action, and encourage the skills needed to consistently translate heroic impulses into action.

We’re also in the process of creating an Encyclopedia of Heroes, a collection of hero stories from all over the world. Not just all the classic ones and fictional ones, but ones that people from around the world are going to send in, so they can nominate ordinary heroes with a picture and a story. It will be searchable, so you can find heroes by age, gender, city and country. These are the unsung, quiet heroes—they do their own thing, put themselves in danger, defend a moral cause, help someone in need. And we want to highlight them. We want them to be inspirational to other people just like them.

Essentially, we’re trying to build the social habits of heroes, to build a focus on the other, shifting away from the “me” and toward the “we.” As the poet John Donne wrote: “No man [or woman] is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

So every person is part of humanity. Each person’s pulse is part of humanity’s heartbeat. Heroes circulate the life force of goodness in our veins. And what the world needs now is more heroes—you. It’s time to take action against evil.

About the Author

Headshot of Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo

Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D. , is a professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, a professor at Palo Alto University, a two-time past president of the Western Psychological Association, and a past president of the American Psychological Association. He is also the author of the best-selling book The Lucifer Effect and the president of the Heroic Imagination Project .

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Very nice information. In this world this is the very difficult question that what makes people good or evil. This post has helped a lot to understand the difference. Actually in my point of it depends upon the individual that what he/she thinks. If he/she thinks negative all the time them they became evil and thinking vice versa makes them good.

Andrew | 2:31 am, January 19, 2011 | Link

I really like reading this article because there are many individuals in the world that are heroes but are not recognized.  Heroes that have help humanity progress and prosper have fought with the greatest weapons which are love, respect, sincerity, and peace.  The governments that have had the greatest fear of seeing people free have always use war for colonization, genocide, and false treaties.  However, love is much stronger than war, and thanks to the modern forms of communication and exchange of information, more people are united for peace and do not support or participate in colonization or human genocide.  Since the start of humanity most people have use peace to progress, few have participated in war and few are participating. May peace prevail on earth!

Victor | 7:48 pm, January 29, 2011 | Link

A son raising up against an evil father. A brother standing up to a bully attacking his sibling. A stranger rallying to the side of a woman being assaulted in the street.

My sons are my strength. My reason to help others, that they may find the help they need in their lives.

pops | 9:39 am, February 3, 2011 | Link

Of course religion and eduction has a big impact on a child. But once a child is trying to live a good life (earning good karma or call it whatever you want) good things will happen to that child and he or she will recognize this.

So I think you can definitely change from evil to good.. maybe you _can be changed_ from good to evil.

Massud Hosseini | 7:28 am, September 17, 2011 | Link

Actually in my point of it depends upon the individual that what he/she thinks

asalah | 9:41 pm, September 24, 2011 | Link

“Research has uncovered many answers to the second question: Evil can be fostered by dehumanization, diffusion of responsibility, obedience to authority, unjust systems, group pressure, moral disengagement, and anonymity, to name a few.”  <—What I find amazing about this statement is that anything is being branded “evil” at all.  Well, maybe not.  Relativism seems to be something that’s employed when convenient, disregarded when it’s not.

Kukri | 6:58 pm, November 6, 2011 | Link

This is a very comprehensive discussion on heroism. Victor makes a great point in his comment about how most heroes go unnoticed by the vast majority of people. I think that lack of notoriety is part of what it means to be a hero: doing that which is unexpected without the need for a pat on the back. quotes for facebook status

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Generally I do not learn from posts on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very pressured me to check out and I did so! Your writing style has amazed me. Thank you, quite nice article.

drake quotes | 11:08 pm, January 11, 2012 | Link

I found this informative and interesting blog so i think so its very useful and knowledge able.I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future.

marilyn monroe quotes | 4:45 am, January 12, 2012 | Link

Thanks for the comments here very informative and useful keep posting comments here everyday guys thanks again.

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When a sniper’s bullet hits one soldier and misses the person next to him, that alone does not make the wounded soldier more heroic.

brokesteves | 6:10 am, April 24, 2012 | Link

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My Heroes: The People Who Inspire Me Through My Life

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