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Are Heroes and Villains Really Just Victims of Circumstance?

Claims that heroism and evil are equally "banal" rest on double standards

This post is in response to
Individual Differences in the Stanford Prison Experiment

What moves a person to become a hero or a villain? Do people perform heroic actions, acts which involve genuine risk to themselves, because they are special people, or is it just a matter of banal circumstance, being in the right place at the right time? Do people who perform evil actions do so because of flaws in their character, or are they just victims of an evil system that corrupts the innocent, inducing otherwise “good” people to do terrible things? Those who subscribe to situationism, such as Phil Zimbardo, have argued that given the proper circumstances virtually anyone could either become a hero or an evil-doer, regardless of what sort of person they are. However, a closer examination of Zimbardo’s writings on the subject reveals apparent double standards for good and evil, in that evil actions are attributed to external forces imposing upon a person, whereas heroic actions are attributed to internal qualities that empower a person to resist evil. Zimbardo’s own writings on the subject suggest that heroism is far from banal because heroic action involves doing the brave thing in situations when the more commonplace response would be to do nothing. Since heroes take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, does that not mean that evil-doers are responsible for their choices too?

Sometimes people must choose between good and evil. But how do they decide?
Sometimes people must choose between good and evil. But how do they decide?

Personal power and situational power: opposed or complementary forces?

One of the more generally accepted theories in psychology is that behavior results from an interaction of the internal features of the person (e.g. their personality, motives, and values) and the external features of the situation, such as social pressures to behave a certain way. However, according to the school of thought called situationism, there are situations that are so powerful that they compel nearly everyone to act in certain ways, regardless of their internal dispositions or even their moral values. This view is particularly associated with Phil Zimbardo, who claimed that “A large body of evidence in social psychology supports the concept that situational power triumphs over individual power in certain contexts” (2007). I am not sure what body of evidence exactly he is referring to with this statement, as a meta-analysis of 100 years of research in social psychology found that the average effect size of social influence on behavior was actually smaller than the effect of personality (Richard, Bond Jr, & Stokes-Zoota, 2003).[1] Zimbardo has asserted that powerful situations can induce “good” people to do evil things. In particular, he has claimed that abusive behaviors that occurred in the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment (which I have analyzed in a previous post) and at Abu Ghraib prison can be explained in terms of external situational forces rather than the personal characteristics of those who were involved. More recently, Zimbardo has argued that situationism can explain not only the extremes of evil but the extremes of good as well:

“The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism. Both are not the consequence of dispositional tendencies, not special inner attributes of pathology or goodness residing within the human psyche or the human genome. Both emerge in particular situations at particular times when situational forces play a compelling role in moving individuals across the decisional line from inaction to action.”

In this view, situational forces move people, pushing some people to do evil, others to turn a blind eye to evil-doers, while still others act heroically to right wrongs at great personal risk. In an article arguing for this situationist explanation, Zeno Franco and Zimbardo stated that “Some situations can inflame the ‘hostile imagination,’ propelling good people to do bad deeds, while something in that same setting can inspire the ‘heroic imagination’ propelling ordinary people toward actions that their culture at a given time determines is ‘heroic.’” (Emphasis added.)

Was Scottish hero William Wallace just an ordinary guy after all?
The real life Braveheart: was he just an ordinary guy after all?

Situations as a personality test

In the language of social psychology, the situationist view attributes behavior mainly to external, rather than internal forces. Hence, heroism and villainy are unrelated to individual differences in personality or even conscious decisions based on one’s values. This seems to imply a rather passive view of human behavior in which people are largely at the mercy of circumstances outside themselves, rather than rational actors capable of making choices. However, if features of the person can be disregarded in favour of situational forces, then it is very difficult to explain why it is that the same situation can elicit completely opposite responses from different people. This would seem to suggest that situations elicit either heroic or villainous responses in a random way that cannot be predicted, or that situational factors alone are insufficient to explain the choices that people make in difficult circumstances. An alternative view is that situations do not so much suppress the individual personality, as reveal the person’s latent potential (Krueger, 2008). Therefore, a dangerous situation for example might reveal one person’s potential for bravery and another’s potential for cowardice.

Within you, without you: The incongruity within situationism

As I noted earlier, most psychologists believe that both situational and personal factors need to be considered in understanding why people behave the way they do. Franco and Zimbardo actually acknowledge this in one of their articles: “Just as in the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram studies, the situation and the personal characteristics of each person caught up in the situation interact in unique ways.” When I first read this I thought it was a remarkable admission considering that Zimbardo and his colleague Craig Haney responded with hostility and dismissal (Haney & Zimbardo, 2009) to the suggestion that the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment could have been influenced by the fact that people with certain personality traits might have been more likely to volunteer for such an experiment than others (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007). Furthermore, it appears difficult at first to reconcile an interactionist view with statements that Franco and Zimbardo have made that extreme behavior involving either heroism or evil is best understood as a product of external circumstances and not of internal dispositions. However, in practice, situationists seem to invoke a double standard when it comes to explaining evil versus heroic behavior. Evil behavior is explained in terms of external situational and systemic forces that compel otherwise “good” people to do bad things. Zimbardo explains that prisoner abuse is not due to a few “bad apples” but a “bad barrel” that corrupts whatever is put into it. He even goes so far as to say that “you can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel,” implying that people in such circumstances are passive victims without any moral agency. This effectively absolves evil-doers of responsibility for their actions. On the other hand, heroism is explained in terms of the “heroic imagination,” something internal to the person that enables them to actively resist external pressures to turn a blind eye to injustices and to follow a personal moral compass instead. Although heroism is supposed to be a banal response to circumstancesbeing in the right at the right timeFranco and Zimbardo's analysis of the heroic imagination indicates that it has a great deal to do with the development of moral character. More particularly, heroes are people who take full responsibility for the consequences of their actions. And, as we will see, such heroes can even emerge in an “evil barrel” like Abu Ghraib. Hence, people can respond to the very same situation in either good or evil ways. When some do evil, the situation is blamed, yet when others do heroic deeds, at great risk to themselves, it reflects the strength of their own character. This seems like a very unbalanced and self-contradictory view that appears to reflect ideological biases more than objective analysis. Clearly, if ordinary people have the capacity to become heroes who assume personal responsibility for what they do, then surely ordinary people who commit evil also bear responsibility for the choices they make. Perhaps one of the things that distinguishes heroes from other people is that they do not accept excuses for inaction, such as blaming their own behavior on external forces they cannot control, such as being in an "evil barrel." This is not to deny that horrendous situations influence behavior, only to reiterate that the individual choices of the actors in such situations need to be taken into account.

In the second part of this article, I will explore in more detail examples that illustrate the incongruity of the situationist analysis of evil and of heroism respectively. I will argue that a more balanced view that takes into account personal responsibility and moral agency, as well as relevant personality traits, is needed to understand these extremes of human behavior.


[1] For the statistically minded, the average effect size of social influence was r = .13, compared to the effect size of personality which was r = .21. This was brought to my attention in a book review by Krueger (2008).

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.

Image Credits

The One Ring - courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

William Wallace portrait - courtesy of Wikipedia Commons


Carnahan, T., & McFarland, S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: Could Participant Self-Selection Have Led to the Cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33(5), 603-614. doi: 10.1177/0146167206292689

Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2009). Persistent Dispositionalism in Interactionist Clothing: Fundamental Attribution Error in Explaining Prison Abuse. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(6), 807-814. doi: 10.1177/0146167208322864

Krueger, J. I. (2008). Lucifer's last laugh. The American Journal of Psychology, 121, 335-341.

Richard, F. D., Bond Jr, C. F., & Stokes-Zoota, J. J. (2003). One Hundred Years of Social Psychology Quantitatively Described. Review of General Psychology, 7(4), 331-363. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.7.4.331

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (1st ed.). New York: Random House.