Political Science, Department of



Kohen 0000-0002-8787-6173

Date of this Version



Journal of Humanistic Psychology (2024), 22 pages

doi: 10.1177/00221678241242506


Copyright 2024, Sage. Used by permission


Most people who perform a heroic act will, afterward, deny that their actions were heroic and claim that anyone would have done the same, even though that is demonstrably false (and, often, others were present who failed to act heroically at all). The literature on the psychology of heroism has never investigated why this is. This theoretical paper proposes an answer and seeks to provoke exploration of a previously unexplored topic. We note that people who undertake heroic action face a unique conflict: they embody their community’s highest values, while simultaneously breaking norms to stand apart from that community. We hypothesize that this conflict takes a psychological toll and is at the heart of a hero’s self-effacing denial. In this paper, we argue that (a) acting heroically is, by definition, committing a violation of social norms and therefore standing apart from the political community; (b) in the moment, heroic agents are willing to violate norms to serve a higher social value (such as saving a life), but afterward they feel the full emotional weight of acting in a non-normative manner; and (c) heroes’ eagerness to downplay or generalize their heroic action is not merely an act of humility, but an attempt to seek readmission to the community and the status of being “normal.” We be-lieve that exploration of this topic can provide insight on what prevents people from acting heroically when needed, and we discuss why alternative possibilities such as humility and modesty are not sufficient explanations.