Heroes are ubiquitous in literature and popular discourse, yet little is known about cognitive representations of heroes. We examined lay conceptions of heroes using a prototype approach, compared heroes with other persons of influence, and studied how individuals use hero features to identify heroes. In Study 1, participants (N = 189) generated open-ended descriptions of heroes, which were sorted by independent coders into 26 meaningful categories. In Study 2, participants (N = 365) rated the centrality of these features, and subsequently classified each feature as either central (e.g., brave, moral integrity) or peripheral (e.g., humble, proactive). In a reaction time (RT) paradigm, participants in Study 3 (N = 33) identified central features of heroes faster than peripheral features. In Study 4, participants (N = 25) remembered more central hero features than peripheral features in a surprise recall task. In Study 5 (N = 89), participants most strongly identified a hero when the target was described with central features (vs. peripheral or neutral features). In Studies 6 (N = 212) and 7 (N = 307), participants' ratings evidenced that the prototypical features of heroes did not fit conceptually as well for role models and leaders. In all, these studies contribute new ideas to existing knowledge about heroes, and contribute to a shared understanding of what a hero means to people. Our research is thus an important step in refining heroism into a scientific concept. The notion of the prototypical features of heroes provides a basis for future hero research and intervention.
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