Heroes, they’re just like us (almost)

3 minute read

People who engage in extraordinary acts of altruism aren’t a breed apart, just less selfish and more thoughtful than most.

Barring anyone who lives out their days as though they’re a character on Succession, moral virtue is something that most of us aspire to achieve, albeit to varying degrees of success. 

And while the occasional random act of kindness or charitable donation are enough to let this Back Page contributor sleep at night, some people give altruism a whole new meaning – the kind that would give up a vital organ or sprint into a burning building without a second thought.  

For those of us intrigued, or just confused, by the psychological motivations behind these feats of heroism, a team of Georgetown researchers studied 350 “extreme altruists” who had performed such feats to see if they could identify the personality traits that distinguish them from us mere mortals.   

These altruists included humanitarian aid workers, Carnegie medal recipients and those who had donated a vital organ, bone marrow or stem cells to a direct or non-direct recipient, matched by age and sex to a control group of 200 ordinary adults. 

All participants underwent a battery of psychological screening and personality assessment, using the six-factor HEXACO personality test, to identify differences in risk-perception, risk-taking behaviour, cognitive reflection, empathy and psychopathy between the two cohorts. 

The researchers also evaluated how “extreme altruists” are commonly perceived by the average Joe by surveying two independent samples of 200 individuals across a range of demographics. 

Their findings, published here, revealed that the “extreme altruists” were overwhelmingly distinguished by high levels of the honesty-humility trait in the HEXACO personality model, which translated to an “unusual” lack of selfishness and greater than average regard for others’ welfare. 

However, levels of other traits previously linked to altruism, such as self-reported empathy, agreeableness and insensitivity to risk, were similar between both cohorts, despite most American adults identifying these as the defining traits for “extreme altruists” in both surveys. 

“In some ways, it seems intuitive that the trait that really distinguishes extraordinary altruists from other people is unselfishness and valuing others’ welfare,” senior author Abigail Marsh, who is also a professor of psychology at Georgetown, told media. 

“I think that’s why you so often hear altruists referred to using supernatural terms like ‘saints’ and ‘guardian angels’. But they’re not. It’s so important to know that really altruistic people have quirks and flaws just like anyone else. They are just genuinely less selfish.” 

Overall, mostly reassuring results for those of us not rushing to put our lives on the line – even the heroes can’t have it all. 

And if you, like the inimitable Bonnie Tyler, are holding out for an ever-elusive knight in shining armour, farming out the HEXACO personality test could be a good way to speed up your search. 

The real heroes among us are the ones who send story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au

End of content

No more pages to load

Log In Register ×