Philip Zimbardo’s revenge: Turning knowledge of evil into actions of heroism

May 28, 2011 | By | 4 Replies More

I’ve previously commented on Phillips Zimbardo’s thoroughly engaging work, including his lecture on “The Secret Powers of Time.”  He is well respected for his research on a wide variety of social psychology issues.

Forty years ago, Zimbardo unwittingly served as the mastermind of the infamous “Stanford prison experiment.”  He selected healthy young men with no history of any psychological problems, drug abuse or violence and he put them into a situation where they would fill the roles of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison (in a school building) that soon turned ugly as Zimbardo stood by and observed. The prisoner abuse eventually become intolerable. During the course of the experiment, the “guards” became physically and emotionally abusive toward the “prisoners.” Zimbardo took a lot of criticism for running this experiment, even though he shut it down six days after beginning what was scheduled to be a two-week long experiment. Zimbardo still today notes that his own “passive role” enabled the abuse. The Stanford experiment clearly demonstrated that a toxic situation can cause “good” people to act grotesquely.

Based on his previous work, including the Stanford experiment, Zimbardo was called to serve as an expert witness in a case the US government brought against an Abu Ghraib guard who was accused of being a “bad apple.” Zimbardo disagreed with that characterization, opining that Abu Ghraib was a terrible situation that was likely to corrupt many good people. As indicated in an article by Greg Miller titled “Using the Psychology of Evil to Do Good” in the April 29, 2011 edition of Science (available online only to subscribers), the guard being prosecuted:

. . . soon found himself supervising about a dozen military police and dozens more Iraqi police responsible for guarding more than 1000 Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The prisoner population had recently tripled, creating a chaotic environment in which standard procedures and oversight broke down. The language barrier made prisoner same anonymous, Zimbardo says, and many prisoners were forced to go naked, further dehumanizing them and creating a sexually charged atmosphere. Guards worked daily 12 hour shifts for weeks on end. Fear of a revolt-or an attack from outside-mixed with boredom and exhaustion to create a volatile brew.

In short, Abu Ghraib constituted an episode of déjà vu for Zimbardo. It was no surprise to him that guards with no history of troublemaking or bad character would engage in grotesque acts.

Image by Benchart at Dreamstime (with permission)

Spurred on by his previous research, Zimbardo has launched the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) the program was described as follows in the science article:

Its goal is to use lessons learned from social psychology research to teach ordinary people-from high school students to office workers-to recognize the influences that can make people stand idly by when they see a person in need and embolden them to commit what Zimbardo calls acts of everyday heroism. The organization has plans for teaching, research, and public outreach they’re just getting off the ground. “Our ambition is to seed the world with heroes,” Zimbardo says

The curriculum includes studying modern day heroes, such as Daniel Ellsberg (I would include Thomas Drake). It also includes studying some of the classic experiments in social psychology, including Stanley Milgram’s 1962 study on obedience to authority (in that experiment 2/3 of ordinary people serving as volunteers follow the orders of the experimenter and dealt what they believed to be lethal shocks to actors posing as victims). Milgram’s experiments serve as a classic illustration that ordinary people can act in evil ways. Miller sums it up this way:

[Milgram’s experiments] lent support to Milgram’s fear that the Holocaust could happen again. The first step to becoming a hero, Zimbardo says, is recognizing the social pressures at work in a given situation.

Another classic illustration of ordinary people acting in evil ways is the Kitty Genovese incident, where dozens of neighbors looked on while a 28-year-old woman was stabbed to death near her home. This is been termed the “bystander effect”: people are less likely to help whenever they assume someone else will. This has also been termed the “diffusion of responsibility.”

I’ve previously argued that Milgram’s findings dovetail closely with the Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil.” I believe that both of these phenomena stem from the lack of attentional capacity of human beings. We are easily distracted from empathizing by such things as authority figures and institutional pressures. Zimbardo’s program reminds me of what I have termed “the banality of good.” I have previously argued that training that redirects attention away from untoward social pressures and back toward empathy would seem to be a good way to battle our moral deficiencies that are based upon our limited attentional capacities. Zimbardo’s program also reminds me of my earlier attempt to set forth what would be a comprehensive curriculum in moral education. Comprehensive moral education involves far more than learning what the rules are and being encouraged to follow the rules (contrary to much of what passes as “morality” these days).

The homepage of the Heroic Imagination Project sets these goals:

  • Trains people to overcome the natural human tendency to watch and wait in moments of crisis.
  • Teaches individuals how to stand up, speak out and act with moral courage when the situation demands.
  • Provides young people with strategies to act with character and courage to resist bullying, peer pressure and indifference.

The Project website also describes that the project aims to

utilize recent findings in social psychology to educate and train students, corporate employees, and the public, to resist the power of negative situational and social pressures and to stand up, speak out and act with moral courage when the situation demands.

The website includes a four-part lesson aimed at helping readers understand and practice heroism; it is called the “Hero Challenge.”

After reading about Zimbardo’s new program Greg Miller’s article, I saw that Zimbardo has returned to TED, this time to present his Heroic Imagination Program in an eight-minute video.

At the beginning of the video, Zimbardo sets forth a highly useful collection of psychologically-substantiated reasons why ordinary people turn evil:

  • dehumanization
  • diffusion of responsibility
  • obedience to authority
  • unjust systems
  • group pressure
  • power and control
  • moral disengagement, and
  • anonymity.

While there is considerable psychological research shown many ways people turn evil, there’s very little scientific research on why people become heroes. In his video at TED, Zimbardo indicates that 20% of the population have engaged in heroic acts. By this, he means that they have done something voluntary at a personal cost in defense of other people (or in defense of a moral cause) without any expectation of receiving a reward.

As you see in the video, the same difficult situations that turn some people in the villains also inspire others to become heroes. The great majority of people, however, do nothing and “they do it with no imagination at all.” This is more dangerous than it might appear at first glance, because the stark inaction of the great majority of people “implicitly supports evil.” Zimbardo cites Edmund Burke: “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

In his TED video, Zimbardo tells the audience that the Heroic Imagination Program is designed to empower ordinary people to engage in extraordinary acts of heroism. And heroism, he says, is the antidote to public indifference and to systemic evil. His goal is to teach people to transform their compassion into heroic action. He will do this four ways he characterizes as the “Four Ds”:

  • Democratize – Everyone can be a hero.
  • Demystify- Most heroes are ordinary people doing extraordinary acts.
  • Diffuse – Heroes are most effective in teams, ensembles and networks, rather than acting solo.
  • Declare – Be a hero in waiting and training. Practice being a hero by doing little good deeds on a regular basis

As Zimbardo indicates in the video, the HIP program includes a curriculum, camps and programs. It will also include a Wiki website that will allow users to showcase ordinary people who have acted heroically.

I can only imagine how Zimbardo must still feel pained at the outcome of the Stanford experiment (even though the experiment provided immensely useful information). On the other hand, it does sound as though Zimbardo’s Hero Imagination Project is a great use of the terrible lessons learned at Stanford.


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Category: Good and Evil, Human animals, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. A country run by psychopaths : Dangerous Intersection | June 18, 2011
  1. Erika Price says:

    As the Stanford Prison Experiment stands as an illustration of the banality of evil, it likewise demonstrates the banality of good. As Zimbardo is quick to recount, he failed to see the horror of the way the SPE went- because he became equally absorbed in the operation through his role as 'warden' of the 'prison'. He only called off the experiment and decided to end it prematurely when his research assistant and girlfriend (now his wife) voiced her alarm with the way things were going and pressured him to stop.

    Ms. Zimbardo is the quiet hero at the back of all this. We can only ponder at how far things might have gone if she had not voiced concern. What if she had just been an anonymous grad student with no romantic pull on her supervisor? Would she have said anything? There are so many social and situational pressures that keep subordinates from piping up- in work, in academia, and especially in the authoritarian structures of the military. If only it were easier for more people to express their doubts and prevent such ethical lapses.

  2. Ben says:

    Speaking of heroes… meet Adam Kokesh

  3. Hip Hero says:

    Excellent post! We just shared this on our social media networks. Join Dr. Zimbardo and his Heroic Imagination Project on… for more conversation on this important topic.

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