Einstein beats Mother Theresa as the hero of the world

Heroes and villains don’t only exist in comic books. The real world is full of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys (and girls). Being an exceptional scientist or humanitarian will most likely land you on the heroic side of history. Obviously, dictators who have oppressed millions of people are more likely to be seen as the villains of world history. For a number of influential figures, our perception of their achievements however strongly depends on how our particular cultural region was affected. For example, even though the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln makes him a historical hero in American eyes, people from other countries might value Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, or even Princess Diana much more. And what about more controversial figures such as Che Guevara and Napoleon? In this blog, I will review a brand new study in which it was tested who the heroes and villains of our                                                                            shared, global history are.

Even historical events that are commonly described as having a global impact rarely have the same impact on all regions of the world. Think for example of both of the “World Wars”, of which the majority of casualties took place in the West and East Asia. Moreover, the effects of global warming are more intensively affecting life in agrarian societies around the equator than in more moderate climates. Research has shown that the meaning that is attached to such historical events therefore differs for people from different cultural backgrounds (Liu et al., 2012). For historical figures, opinions might differ to an even greater degree. Think for example of the Prophet Mohammed and Jesus Christ and the regions where these two figures will be perceived most positively. It is not hard to imagine that opinions about who is to be seen as a global hero and who as a villain should differ greatly.

For this reason, it is surprising that there is actually an overwhelming consensus in the extent to which the world perceives its’ main historical figures. In order to test how a wide range of historical figures is seen by people across the world (and if they agree), Hanke et al. (2015) conducted a study among nearly 7.000 students from 37 countries. The wide range of countries that were included made sure that the results are not limited to WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) (see Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan, 2010). Students were asked to indicate if they had positive or negative feelings about a selection of 40 historical figures. The selection of the 40 included historical figures was based on open nominations from people in 24 countries (Liu et al., 2005; Liu et al., 2009). The historical figures that were among the top 10 people who were nominated in two or more countries were selected. In addition to these figures, religious founders were added to the list, since the nominations had been restricted to people who had lived within the last 1000 years.

The person who was most positively evaluated in all countries was Einstein. He was closely followed by Mother Theresa, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King. The top 10 further included Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln and Buddha.  This list thus primarily includes scientists, humanitarians and religious figures, as well as political leaders of whom it is more likely that they are perceived as humanitarians (Lincoln and Mandela). The five most negatively evaluated historical figures across all countries were: Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush and Joseph Stalin. This list consists of people twentieth and twenty-first century figures that are known for their leading roles in dictatorship, terrorism, mass murder, and/or driving their countries into unjust wars. It is important to keep in mind here that most of the data were collected between 2007 and 2008.

Even though the pattern that emerges from this ranking of heroic and evil historical figures is interesting, it doesn’t tell us yet if people from different cultural regions really agree on the way that these figures are evaluated. The authors therefore went one step further and assessed the extent to which people from different cultural backgrounds agreed or disagreed in their perceptions. The 37 countries were clustered into four cultural regions for this reason: a Catholic-Orthodox (or traditionally Christian) region (Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Russia, Spain), a mainly Western region (Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Fiji, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Switzerland, UK, USA), a Muslim region  (Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Tunisia), and an Asian region (China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan).

Interestingly, more cultural variation was found for the evaluation of the ‘bad guys’ Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and Sun Yatsen. The figures who received the highest rates of agreement were the Qin Emperor, who was rated rather neutrally in all countries, as well as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. This tells us that Albert Einstein was positively evaluated in all cultural regions, but Osama bin Laden draws different evaluations from Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Overall, there was more agreement for the positively evaluated figures such as Buddha, Newton, Einstein, Mother Theresa and Mandela. Even though also positively evaluated, there was less consensus about Edison, Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King and Lincoln. Scientists thus seem to be most consensually agreed-upon ‘heroes’ across cultures, together with religious and humanitarian figures that are associated with bringing peace. The world however has more divergent opinions about who is to be perceived as a true ‘villain’.

In times in which the world is connected economically, politically and climatically, should we be concerned about the fact that there is controversy over the evaluations of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein? I’d personally prefer to think that the fact that we share a positive evaluation of scientific advancement and a rise of human rights, as indicated by the most positive evaluation of Einstein and Mother Theresa is great news.  


Hanke K, Liu JH, Sibley CG, Paez D, Gaines SO Jr, et al. (2015) “Heroes” and “Villains” of World History across Cultures. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0115641. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0115641

Henrich J, Heine SJ, Norenzayan A (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33: 61–135. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152X. pmid:20550733

Liu JH, Goldstein-Hawes R, Hilton DJ, Huang LL, Gastardo-Conaco C, Dresler-Hawke E, et al. (2005) Social representations of events and people in world history across twelve cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 36: 171–191. doi: 10.1177/0022022104272900

Liu JH, Páez D, Slawuta P, Cabecinhas R, Techio E, et al. (2009) Representing world history in the 21st century: The impact of 9–11, the Iraq War, and the nation-state on the dynamics of collective remembering. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 40: 667–692. doi: 10.1177/0022022109335557