Be the One

Good people can do evil things. Choose wisely: Be a hero.

Posted May 24, 2017

Phil Zimbardo
Source: Phil Zimbardo

A few weeks ago, my colleague Phil Zimbardo gave a TEDx talk in Rome with thousands in attendance. Like Dr. Suess's Lorax, who warned about the dangers of cutting down all the trees, Phil is known for being the harbinger of social situations that can quickly turn into nearly insurmountable catastrophes if quick action isn’t taken. In his presentation, he laid out how people across the globe are experiencing fear and pessimism about right-wing totalitarian governments that threaten democracy throughout Europe, and in the United States. His antidote: Applying social psychology lessons in high schools and corporations to create “everyday heroes.” And he’s optimistic that a new generation of superheroes will be our salvation. The following is a summary of this talk:

The psychology of evil

In 1971, Phil conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) in which normal, healthy, intelligent college students from all over America were recruited for a two-week study. But the study ended after six days because students recruited randomly to be prison guards started behaving sadistically and cruelly, so much so that some of the normal, healthy students that were playing the role of prisoners had emotional breakdowns.

The SPE has become a classic in attesting to the power of situational forces to dominate an individual’s personality. The SPE was part of a bigger theme of Phil's—researching the psychology of evil around the world. It was replicated in 2004, not in an experiment, not in a university, but in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where American soldiers did the same thing to Iraqi prisoners they were supposed to be protecting. The guards degraded, humiliated and tortured the prisoners, not for six days but for three months.

Because of the SPE and other studies, we know how easy it is for good people to become evil. The question is: Can ordinary people be inspired and trained to be everyday heroes? The answer: Yes. The San Francisco-based non-profit Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) was created about ten years ago to help combat the forces of evil with a powerful weapon of new forms of education. Why imagination? Because heroism starts in the imagination when you imagine that you could be a hero. 

What does this mean?

HIP imparts social psychology lessons to students in schools and staff in corporations to teach people how to stand up, speak out, and take wise and effective action against all forms of evil in their lives.

For 40 years, all over Europe, countries have dealt with fascism and communism. Now, the new evil – the new threat — is the right-wing, totalitarian parties that are flourishing in Eastern and Western Europe. Occlusion thinking is growing worldwide. For example, Hungarian political leaders say migrants are poison and are not needed. How do they brainwash good citizens to believe this? By dehumanizing others through propaganda and negative media images. In this way, ordinary people accept discrimination against minorities.

And for the first time in several decades, if not longer, America is moving in this direction with President Donald Trump. He has said repeatedly that he wants a total and complete shutdown of Muslims from entering the country and he has turned his back on refugees from war-torn countries. The problem with the ironic thought process behind this rhetoric is all Americans are immigrants unless they are Native American, and sadly many of them live in poverty on reservations. History has taught us that totalitarian dangers toward democracy come gradually but systematically. Let’s explore how this happens.

All evil begins with 15 volts

In 1963, Stanley Milgram conducted a series of studies of blind obedience to authority; one included his “shock box.” For this experiment, Milgram recruited people to play the role of “teacher.” A researcher in a white lab coat represented the authority figure and oversaw the teacher. In another room, an unseen researcher posed as the “learner.” The teacher would "teach" the learner how to improve his performance. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was told to flip a switch on a box and give the learner an electric shock. They began with 15 volts which was increased by 15 volts with every mistake. The ineffectual “shock box” had 30 switches. When the teacher would get to 100-150 volts, the learner would begin to yell and scream.

In every case the teacher turned to the experimenter in a white lab coat, the authority figure, and said they didn't want to continue but the experimenter said they had signed a contract and must go on. While the teachers complained verbally, behaviorally they complied. At the end of the box was 450 volts. The question was: Who would go all the way? The sad answer: two out of every three of almost 1,000 participants went to the full extreme of 450 volts. When you flip that first switch, that 15 volts, you are on the steady slippery slope to evil because you know where it could lead.

How totalitarian governments start with 15 volts

Based on the above, we can see how totalitarian governments can take over a democratic nation:

  • 15 volts - limited free speech
  • 75 volts - control the media
  • 135 volts - control the judiciary
  • 195 volts - politicians replaced with selected officials
  • 265 volts - punish, imprison all critics
  • 310 volts - suspend elections
  • 385 volts - military or religious rule
  • 450 volts - total political domination

We may say a right-wing government is not for us, or that we aren’t that kind of people, but gradually over time, one by one, day by day, month by month, this is what has happened throughout Europe. Last month in Budapest, the government took over Central European University, a private university which must now be called Hungarian Central University and all foreign professors must leave. And similar evils are happening now in the United States.

Four challenges

Throughout the world, we are facing four tests that pose difficult challenges for all of us:

  1. Expanding inequality gap between the very few rich (about 1%) and the increasing number of poor people as well as the diminishing middle class. In the U.S. and many other countries the middle class is being squeezed out and eliminated.
  2. Ever-increasing flow of people migrating from war torn impoverished countries to neighboring nations. The estimation is about 6 million people will migrate in 2018.
  3. The graying/aging of most societies. As life spans increase, there is a decrease in fertility. In many counties the fertility rate is declining. For instance, in Japan there is a negative fertility rate. This is a new problem for young people.
  4. Mass migrations from East to West, from South to North, and from farms to cities.

Our world is rapidly changing and we must learn to adapt and make wise choices. Whether we choose for the good of all, or for the good of a few, is up to each of us.

How to inspire heroism

Heroism begins in the mind and is inspired by educating people to social psychology. It starts by rethinking the nature of good and evil and by thinking of yourself as having an inner hero. As individuals, we can start by transforming bystander apathy, which characterizes the bystander effect into heroic action. The paradox of the bystander effect is: In an emergency situation the more people present, the less likely anyone is to help. Its genesis occurred over 50 years ago after the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in New York where many people allegedly heard her screams and did nothing. What we’ve learned in the ensuing decades is that in an emergency situation, as soon as one person helps, then in seconds that help multiplies. HIP's message: YOU should be that ONE!

Heroes are ordinary people who take extraordinary action during challenging situations in their lives. Effective heroes do the right thing when other people are doing the wrong thing, or more often, when they are doing nothing. A hero also exposes evil in all of its many forms as a whistle blower.

In the HIP program, social psychology knowledge is conveyed in six in-depth lessons that answer questions such as:

  • How do you transform passive bystanders into active heroes?
  • How do you transform people who have a static, fixed mind set into people with a dynamic growth mindset?
  • How do you transform prejudice and discrimination into understanding and acceptance?
  • Other programs are about social conformity, social attribution, and situational awareness of authority power.

What is a hero?

A hero is someone who acts on behalf of others in need or defends a moral cause; a hero is aware of personal risk or cost.

Heroes are generally ordinary, everyday people whose actions in challenging situations are extraordinary. They always disown the label when people say they did a heroic deed, often saying, “No, no. I did what anybody could or would do.”

Heroism creates a positive ripple effect on others who see these good actions; which then spreads – sometimes throughout the world. Conversely, when you see someone doing something bad or evil, it has a negative ripple effect.

How to be a hero

Start with small steps and become an everyday hero in training. Here's how:

  • Make somebody feel special today. For example, learn their name, look them in the eye, shake their hand, or give them a justifiable compliment.
  • Ask questions, never follow the rules blindly. We teach our children to obey authority but let’s teach them to obey “just” authority and defy “unjust” authority. 
  • Always ask, what is my ripple effect? What have I done today that will influence other people in a positive way?
  • Heroes are sociocentric. The enemy of heroism is egocentrism. In other words, when I think about me I'm never focused on you. Let’s consider our new job in life, every day, wherever we go, is to make other people feel special. It's not about me – it's about you. Let's change our perspective from me to WE!

What a brighter future looks like

  • Peace replaces war
  • Passion rules over fear
  • Understanding and acceptance replace prejudice and discrimination
  • Heroes dominate villains!

How can this be achieved? Be The One. Be that person who ignores the social norm of doing nothing and creates a new social norm of doing something.

Source: PhilTEDXRoma

Watch Phil’s TED X Roma talk here.

Watch Phil's TED talk on Good and Evil. 

Watch Phil's TED talk on the Psychology of Time.

Watch Phil's TED talk on The Demise of Guys?

See Time Perspective TherapyThe Time Cure; and The Time Paradox. Learn more about yourself and helpful ways to cope with life’s stress at Discoveraetas; watch The River of Time. See Phil Zimbardo's Heroic Imagination Project

Read a interview of Rose Sword by Sosa Manuel, aka Elliot Figueira.’s mission is to make psychology available to everyone; it is for millennials, by millennials.