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Published: 3 week

\"Heroes' Tax\", or why workers in the helping professions can be better used?

The "heroisation" of some professions has a paradoxical effect on workers' earning potential, research-based studies show, according to bbc.com. It turns out that we worry less about mistreatment if the people exploited are "heroes".

A hősök adója: miért lehet jobban kihasználni az önzetlen munkavállalókat?-

It is undeniable that there are professions that are surrounded by respect. Soldiers, firefighters, health care workers and teachers work to keep us safe, to save our lives if necessary, and to educate future generations. They are often colloquially referred to as "heroes" - a word that refers to the strength and selflessness that goes into the everyday work of people in these professions.



However, recent research suggests that the loftiness of the hero label is accompanied by an assumption that heroes are simply not as interested in things like being fairly rewarded for their work. \"This is clearly a false conclusion," explains Matthew Stanley, a research fellow at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in the US.



This idealisation of workers can have serious practical consequences. Stanley's research shows that "heroising" can lead to poorer pay and can cause people to turn a blind eye to poor working conditions.



"We worry less about mistreatment," says Stanley, "if the people who are exploited are 'heroes'."



Swords with two edges



Stanley was led to this conclusion by the experiences of health workers in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people around him - including his wife - were struggling with the terrible workload and felt they were not getting the support they needed. \"Politicians used the 'hero's label' as praise and recognition, but it became nothing but empty words," he says.



As a psychologist, Stanley began to wonder whether the very idea of the selfless hero might contribute to their needs being ignored. If so, it could affect conditions in many professions outside medicine. In collaboration with Aaron C Kay, a professor at the Fuqua School of Business, he has since launched a series of studies to examine people's assumptions about the 'heroic' professions. The result has been some very interesting studies, the first of which was published last year.



In their first two surveys, Stanley and Kay confirmed that people perceive veteran soldiers as more heroic than the average American citizen. They see them as statues of selflessness and sacrifice.



"People think of them in incredibly positive terms: as friends, co-workers and neighbors," Stanley says. \"They are the quintessence of heroes.\"



Psychologists then looked at people's perceptions of what jobs veterans should seek after leaving the military. In a variety of questionnaires, participants hypothesized that veterans would do better in jobs that involve serving others - such as fundraiser, paramedic or home health aide - than in higher-paying, more self-interested jobs such as private banker or insurance agent.



Stanley and Kay got very similar responses when participants were asked to consider how well suited certain jobs would be to veterans. The results showed that research participants assumed that a soldier who had been discharged from the army would be better suited to a job with a charity that helps build homes for low-income families - than a position at a multi-investment bank. The researchers found that reinforcing the hero stereotype increases the magnitude of the effect. For example, when participants saw a logo that read "employ our heroes" next to the questionnaire, they were even more likely to support veterans' charitable work.



Of course, some veterans may indeed prefer lower-paying jobs that involve serving others - but overall, this is a generalization. Stanley suspects that these underlying assumptions may unduly steer some workers toward occupations that fit the altruistic stereotype. It's easy to imagine that the hero stereotype might influence, for example, the career advice they receive or the hiring decisions of employers, making them more likely to start in these professions than in other industries.



Preferred to exploitation



Stanley and Kay's second study looked at how heroisation can contribute to exploitation in the workplace in a number of different fields, including teaching, nursing, social work and policing.



Survey participants were first asked to rate, on a scale of one (strongly no) to seven (strongly yes), whether they were a typical worker in each profession who was a hero. They were then asked to judge how likely the person was to volunteer to work an extra day without reward. As expected, participants' responses showed a correlation.



Participants had much higher expectations that workers would sacrifice their day off for free when they considered a job heroic.



In their latest experiment, the researchers looked at how participants perceived actions that violated workers' rights. Does the hero label affect how outraged the public is at news of, for example, teachers' pay cuts? To find out, the psychologists presented participants with a text detailing the measures to cut school budgets and asked them to rate their attitudes on a scale of one (strongly oppose) to seven (strongly support). In some cases, the text was accompanied by a cartoon image of teachers in superhero costumes, in other cases they simply saw the plain text.



You might expect that outrage at a pay-cut measure would be sparked by respect for heroes - but that was not the case. It seems that, thanks to associations with altruism, participants showed less resistance to cuts to the profession when they saw the image of the teachers in capes. \"It's brutally ironic,\" says Stanley.

"The self-sacrificing associations associated with them make us more tolerant of being mistreated.



Overused words



Stanley's findings echo those of Nicki Credland, a reader in intensive care at the University of Hull in the UK. She says the hero narrative can undermine the skills and qualifications of colleagues. "It suggests that we do our jobs because we have a vocation and an innate desire to help people - but that's not true of nursing any more than it is of many other professions," she says. \"And that has a negative effect when we want to be fairly rewarded for our skills and expertise.\"



Other psychologists have also praised the new study. Sapna Cheryan, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the findings fit well with the academic literature on "positive stereotypes". She compares it to the idea of the \"poor but happy" - the idea that people with lower incomes somehow lead simpler and happier lives - which can reduce people's concerns about the causes of inequality.



Stanley believes that the solution may lie in a greater awareness of the many reasons why people might choose a "hero" profession - other than wanting to help others in general. For example, someone might join the military because of the special training and education that the job entails. Stanley's research suggests that describing these motives can prevent people from making unfounded assumptions, so that they rely less on ‗caricatures' and stereotypes,‖ he says.



We are all multifaceted individuals with many competing desires and ambitions - and recognition of this fact need not undermine our respect and admiration for the people who care for our safety, security and health.



bbc.com



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