A Hero

A way to gain influence is to accept personal risk for the benefit of a group. I.e. to become a hero.

Groups use this mechanism to solve a paradox: an individual can act in the interest of a group at one’s own detriment. On the other hand, inaction leads to a loss to every member of that group.

Illustration by Gustave Doré.
“Belling the Cat” is a story about a group of mice, which are discussing how to deal with a cat. One of them proposes placing a bell around its neck. The idea is applauded by all the mice until one of them asks who is going to do that. Illustration by Gustave Doré.

Heros are usually associated with mythical characters fighting monsters. In practice, groups mimic this pattern by rewarding individuals with influence1 in order to incentivize them towards taking risks. However, these risks can include championing one side in forming conflict with other groups. Thus, a way to gain influence is to take responsibility for a conflict with an opposing group2.

In the today’s world, this can be as simple as publicly expressing an opinion.

Of course, these risks include many personal consequences, such as losses of business opportunity, public conflict, a backlash against one’s own project, and so on. Psychologically taxing ad hominem attacks frequently manifest in this environment.

Heavy influence can come to those willing to champion one group in an attack or defense against other groups. A time-tested strategy is to attack individuals expressing certain ideas instead of the ideas themselves. This represents a significant risk to an individual hero, but the reward can be massive in the form of support from other members of his or her group3 .

Groups face risks in democratic societies. Less powerful groups are often marginalized by more powerful ones. The hero effect is an important mechanism because, without it, vulnerable groups get easily marginalized.

Groups need individuals to express their views, but more importantly to articulate a strong position when confronted by other voices. This way the society can incorporate a broader set of ideas in the process of establishing a consensus.

Thanks to Tre Dudman, Jason Civalleri for reading the early draft of this.

This thinking has also been published as a Twitter thread.


  1. [1] The rewards take the form of attention and/or money, which are two quantifiable metrics of influence; http://maciek.blog/what-is-influence
  2. [2] David and Goliath is a biblical example of this dynamics. After defeating Goliath, David becomes the king of the Israelites. Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+17&version=NIRV
  3. [3] Jordan Peterson story is a good example of this. He voiced views held by a large, but silent group. A more powerful group silenced them by enforcing a social penalty. Peterson incurred the cost. As a result, he was rewarded with by the group he took the risk for. In this case, the support came both in the form of influence defined as attention and financial resources. In this video, Peterson explains how the more he gets protested, the more support he receives through Patreon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJ8zBXF8Rgc

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