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!

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