All News and events

New research suggests that we want a life partner to share many of our own personality traits – but with a few surprising exceptions

According to new research we assume that heroes will want to take jobs that are less well paid and are more about serving the community. Like many stereotypes this assumption isn’t helpful

Everyone is the hero of their own story, writers of fiction will often tell you, even if audiences might not consider these people to be very heroic. The concept of the hero can be useful in life when we’re facing challenges. Thinking of ourselves as heroes, or survivors in our own narratives is, as we discuss in one of the other blogs in this newsletter, one way of getting through difficult situations.

However, the idea of the hero has long been very powerful in human societies and storytelling so we need to think carefully before we use it as a label, as new psychological research suggests. In 2021, there were 16.5 million military veterans in the US – heroes in many peoples’ eyes. Yet, according to research, published recently by the American Psychological Association, “vets” aren’t always treated very well in the US, especially where jobs are concerned.

In fact, they’re more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population. They also tend to earn less that their peers, even if they possess the same qualifications. More remarkably, the research suggests, vets suffer these disadvantages because and not despite the fact that they’re seen as heroes. When they explored public opinion on heroism, the research team discovered most of us think of heroes as people who put others before themselves.

Therefore, the perverse but actually quite logical reasoning here seems to be that other people think that because vets are selfless and devoted to others, they should work in jobs where service to the community and to other people rather than money is the driving factor. This means, for instance, they would be best suited to working for a charity or in the caring professions than making money in the finance industry or law.

The project considered 10 different jobs. Those in the service category that were suggested to a cohort of just over 300 members of the public included teaching, firefighting and fundraising, while estate agent, insurance professional and private banker were among the money- or self-focussed careers that the cohort was asked to consider. They were then asked to imagine which of these various careers would best suit a vet with four years of active military service. The subjects were most likely to suggest jobs from the service category.

More specifically, when the 300 members of the public were asked to consider the specific (but fictional) case of a vet with impressive educational qualifications they said that this person was better suited to a job with a non-profit organisation than an investment bank. In fact, the more the idea of the hero was emphasised to the subjects, using relevant imagery in this case, the more strongly they felt that the imaginary job seeker should go for a lower paid, service job.

Are we saying, therefore, don’t be a hero if you want a decent salary? Well, obviously not – we all need heroes! The idea of the hero can get us through difficult times, as we’ve said above. The risk here concerns labels and stereotypes. By deciding that we or another person is a particular type – a hero in this case – with all the assumptions, limitations and even prejudices that go with that type, we’re doing no one any favours.

Challenging perceptions is important here. Phrases such as “These things always happen to me”, “That’s so typical of her”, “I’m the type of person who…” or “I know his sort,” are not helpful. If anything, they can be dangerous. Taking time to see ourselves and other people as complex, nuanced human beings and questioning our assumptions can enable us to understand people, including ourselves, better. It can also help us to work with colleagues more effectively and to manage teams in a way that brings out the best in them.

We talk at Threshold about “rigid rules”. This involves thinking that begins, “I’m X so I have to do Y,” or “I always do this…” Here’s a simple technique that really helps. It’s about keeping hold of the positive aspects of your self-perception, while staying flexible and making sure that it doesn’t limit you. Quite simply give yourself permission. So for example, you might remind yourself “I like helping people, but I give myself permission to have nice things.” Or “I like helping people, but I give myself permission to do a job that rewards me well.”

Seeing yourself as a hero can be helpful in certain situations – especially when the alternative is to be the victim – but it’s important not to make assumptions about how heroes or, indeed, anyone else should behave. We can all be the people we want to be – or need to be – in any given situation.