Heroes Wanted!

What is a hero? Is heroism something that can be taught?

Philip Zimbardo thinks so. The renowned Stanford University psychologist and former APA president is probably best known as the author of the controversial 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a landmark study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard (www.prisonexp.org). In Zimbardo’s experiment, students were randomly assigned to roles in a mock prison set up in the basement of a building on the Stanford campus. Students assigned the role of “officer” quickly became authoritarian, abusive, and sadistic; the “prisoners” became depressed and passive, accepting the abuse and even turning on fellow “inmates” who tried to fight back.

In his 2007 book The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, Zimbardo revisits the Stanford study, admitting that in his capacity as “prison superintendent,” he temporarily lost sight of his own role as psychologist and permitted the abuse to continue. When he was made aware of his complicity and recognized that he’d created a dangerous situation for the students, he abruptly stopped the experiment, only six days into the two-week study he had planned.

Throughout his career, Zimbardo has continued to grapple with the question of what happens when good people find themselves in circumstances that encourage bad behavior. More than 30 years after the Stanford study, he testified as an expert witness in the 2004 court martial of a U.S. Army officer implicated in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. He argued that given a “perfect storm” of social pressures, personalities can be distorted, and decent, ordinary people can be convinced to do extraordinarily bad things.

These days, Zimbardo is looking beyond the human capacity for evil, toward the human capacity for heroism: how people can tap into their own strength to face a crisis and make the unpopular, difficult, or even dangerous decision to do the right thing. “My work on heroism follows 35 years of research in which I studied the psychology of evil, including my work on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment,” he said in a January 18 interview published by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “The two lines of research aren’t as different as they might seem; they’re actually two sides of the same coin” (www.greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_makes_a_hero).

The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) is a nonprofit organization founded by Zimbardo to teach people how to act with moral courage when the situation demands it. Its mission is “to encourage and empower individuals to take heroic action during crucial moments in their lives. We prepare them to act with integrity, compassion, and moral courage, heightened by an understanding of the power of situational forces” (www.heroicimagination.org).

The Heroic Imagination Project has developed programs for middle and high school students as well as corporate managers and employees. These programs, which are based on the findings of recent research in social psychology, include lessons and exercises that help participants learn how to act with integrity and resist behaviors like bullying, negative conformity, and passive indifference.

During the 2010–2011 school year, the HIP program was introduced in three San Francisco Bay Area schools. At the ARISE High School in Oakland, HIP formed a club in which ten students met once a week to analyze famous experiments in social psychology, complete a curriculum on resisting negative social influences, and conduct their own experiments; the HIP program also spent a semester helping to teach a course on the rise of Nazi Germany.

Through their programs, HIP hopes to engender what they call heroic imagination; that is, “a mindset—a set of attitudes which begins with the desire to help others, and grows into the willingness to act on behalf of others, or in defense of integrity or a moral cause, at some risk and without expectation of gain.”

What do you think? Can programs like Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project encourage independent, heroic thinking? Can the culture of negative conformism that is so prevalent in schools be reversed? Can psychology contribute to educating the heroes of tomorrow? Let’s start the conversation—PAR wants to hear from you!

Helping Clients Find Their Own Direction: Robert Reardon and Janet Lenz Reflect on Career and the Success of the Self-Directed Search®

The Self-Directed Search® has been used by more than 30 million people worldwide and has been translated into more than 25 languages. There are a number of career assessments on the market, yet the SDS continues to be extremely successful. What sets it apart? Recently, PAR had the opportunity to catch up with two SDS experts, Robert Reardon, PhD, and Janet Lenz, PhD, both from the Career Center at Florida State University and widely published in the career counseling arena. Reardon and Lenz have worked closely with SDS author John Holland as collaborators and authors of many SDS-related publications, including The Self-Directed Search and Related Holland Materials: A Practitioner’s Guide (PAR, 1998).

The SDS is based on Holland’s career theory, which argues that vocational choice is an expression of personality, and that by identifying certain personality characteristics and preferences, better career choices can be made. “People often feel overwhelmed about how to relate their self-knowledge to career options,” says Reardon. “The SDS gives them a way to intuitively and logically make that connection.” One of Holland’s most important contributions was his identification of the personality and environmental characteristics that have become known collectively as RIASEC: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional. These factors form the basis of the SDS.

Reardon and Lenz have worked with the SDS for nearly 40 years, and they have seen it develop in response to career counseling research and new technology. “Our counseling service started using the SDS in 1973 because it included a self-help feature that we knew would be useful to our clients,” they explain. “Holland took note of what we were doing and was supportive along the way.”

Reardon and Lenz have been deeply involved in revisions of the SDS, and they have been key players in updates and revisions to many of the individual elements in the SDS product family, such as the interpretive report generated by the SDS software. But what keeps these products current and relevant? “The SDS is informed by both practice and research,” they explain, “and we continue to draw upon both to keep SDS materials current and relevant. For example, the revised Occupations Finder published in 2010 is very important because it now connects the SDS to the O*NET system of occupational information, which is online and updated constantly. Unlike many other assessments, the SDS embraces users—after all, ‘self-directed’ is in the title—and this user perspective helps to keep the SDS relevant.”

Today, using the on-screen administration, clients can complete the SDS electronically on a laptop computer, a tablet, or even an iPhone® or Android device. For college students and other clients living in this era of instant information, the SDS has kept pace by providing a fast, accessible, portable, and reasonably priced tool that can help them gain real insight into making good choices about career.

In the category of reliable, valid, theory-based instruments, the SDS is one of the most user-friendly, and it is very easy for practitioners to use with clients. “Some have described the SDS as simple,” say Reardon and Lenz, “but when fully interpreted and connected to Holland’s theoretical constructs (for example, congruence, differentiation, coherence, consistency, vocational identity), it provides a rich source of information for both clients and practitioners to discuss and incorporate into a plan for next steps. The information not only addresses self and option knowledge, but it provides diagnostic data about the client’s ability to move effectively through the career decision-making and problem solving process.”

As the SDS has evolved, it has always been research-based; through the years, more than 1,600 published studies have examined, evaluated, and supported Holland’s career theory. Reardon and Lenz have themselves collaborated in more than 35 publications related to the SDS and RIASEC theory. “Over time, our interest in the SDS has deepened as we learned more about the instrument, not only from our own research, but from hundreds of studies and articles that were published as more practitioners adopted the SDS and more researchers began to consider it.”

“One of the things we’ve seen from doing workshops with counselors all over the country is how many different settings and with how many different client populations the SDS has been used successfully,” say Reardon and Lenz. “It’s been rewarding to see how it has helped so many people become more effective career problem solvers.”
To learn more about the Self-Directed Search and other materials related to career intervention services and resources, visit the SDS product page on PAR’s Web site; to take the SDS online right now, click on http://www.self-directed-search.com/default.aspx.

Signs of Depression on Facebook?

A new study from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health suggests that Facebook may be a potential tool in finding individuals who are suffering from depression. However, study authors say that it should not be used as a substitute for clinical screening.

Researchers analyzed the Facebook profiles of 200 college sophomores and juniors. Twenty-five percent of the students exhibited one or more symptoms of depression through their online activities, whether those were references to decreased interest or pleasure in activities, a change in appetite, sleep problems, loss of energy, or feelings of guilt or worthlessness. Only 2.5 percent of the profiles displayed enough information to warrant screening for depression.

One of the most interesting findings? Students who complained of depression symptoms often had others in their social networks reach out to help them.

Tuning Out: How Visual Focus Can Affect Hearing

It’s an old stereotype, to be sure, but one that occasionally applies to us—though we may be embarrassed to admit it. The scene: Jane is sitting at the breakfast table, engrossed in a newspaper article, when her husband clears his throat loudly and says in an annoyed tone, “Well, yes or no? Have you been listening to me?” Jane hasn’t heard a thing.

Our mothers called it “selective hearing,” but new research suggests that there’s nothing selective about it. In a recent study, Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College London, identified a phenomenon she calls “inattentional deafness.” Dr. Lavie and her colleagues have shown that when our attention and focus are placed on a visual task, we tend to “turn down the volume,” tuning out the sounds around us.

In the study, 100 volunteers with normal hearing and vision performed computer tasks involving a series of shapes while wearing headphones. Some tasks were easy, such as noticing the colors of two crossed lines shown on the computer screen. Other tasks were more challenging and involved identifying subtle line-length differences. At certain points, a tone was played unexpectedly through the headphones. After the experiment was stopped, participants were asked if they had heard the sound.

When completing the easy task, only two in ten volunteers missed the tone. But when focusing on the more difficult task, eight in ten failed to hear it.

In the journal Attention, Perception And Psychophysics (May 25, 2011 online edition), Dr. Lavie says, “Hearing is often thought to have evolved as an early warning system that does not depend on attention, yet our work shows that if our attention is taken elsewhere, we can be effectively deaf to the world around us.” The part of the brain responsible for interpreting sound may be registering a weaker signal because it’s busy with other tasks.

“Your perception of sounds depends not just on your sense of hearing but also on your ability to pay attention,” Dr. Lavie explains. “It’s the first time that we’ve shown that people are not able to detect an ordinary tone if they’re engaged in a task that demands full attention.”

Real-world examples show that inattentional deafness can have very serious consequences. It is well documented that a large number of car accidents are caused by driver inattention. When a driver is concentrating on a GPS map or even an advertisement on the side of passing bus, he or she may fail to hear important sounds such as a truck beeping as it backs up or a bicycle bell. For safety’s sake, it would seem, we may sometimes have to choose between looking and listening.

What do you think? Beyond simply “getting lost in a good book,” could Dr. Lavie’s research have implications for your clients? What about for individuals with attention problems such as ADHD? Leave a comment—PAR wants to hear from you! 

Tears Are Always Empirical: Producing Emotional Responses With Movies

Recently, an article on Smithsonian.com[1] discussed the cinematic catalysts scientists have used to study emotion in people. Specifically, it mentioned “The Champ,” a 1979 remake about a boxer and his young son. In the climactic scene, the son (Ricky Schroder) sobs over his father’s (Jon Voight) dead body after a particularly ravaging match. A 1995 study[2] by Robert Levenson and James Gross claims that this clip is the best at eliciting the single emotion of sadness in study participants.

Levenson and Gross narrowed a batch of 250 titles down to 16 that elicit responses of amusement, anger, contentment, disgust, fear, neutral, sadness, and surprise (two films for each emotion). A key criterion was that the films had to discretely evoke their respective emotions—a requirement that made pinpointing the scenes difficult. For instance, a scene in “Kramer Versus Kramer” in which the protagonist’s young son falls and must be rushed to the hospital caused nearly equal intensities of fear and sadness. The pivotal scene in “The Champ,” on the other hand, evoked sadness almost exclusively.

Other “winners?” For amusement, the fake orgasm scene in “When Harry Met Sally” beat out “Robin Williams Live;” for fear, a scene from “The Shining” evoked more discrete fear than the basement scene in “The Silence of the Lambs.” The runner-up for sadness was the mother’s death in “Bambi,” a scene that many might contend is even more distressing than the climax of “The Champ.”

How about you? What experiences have you had using films as a catalyst in conducting research? And, from your own experience, what other films do you think would perform well at stirring up particular emotions in research participants?


[1] Chin, R. (2011, July 21). The saddest movie in the world. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com

[2] Gross, J. J., & Levenson, R. W. (1995). Emotion elicitation using films. Cognition and Emotion, 9, 87-108.