Zimbardo begins Heroic Imagination Project

Jan. 7, 2011, 3:01 a.m.

Three decades after his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment proved that “terrifyingly normal” individuals can commit alarming atrocities, Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus in psychology, has set out to communicate the opposite: that in all situations, these same people can speak out against evil and become heroes.

Zimbardo has substantiated this notion through the inception of the Heroic Imagination Project. The project, which currently includes a comprehensive website as well as education programs for high schools students, seeks to publicize the term “heroic imagination,” referring to the idea that anyone can become a hero by utilizing his or her imagination.

He intends to “democratize the concept of heroism” and erase the notion that heroes are “extraordinary people.” He explains them instead as “ordinary people who in a particular situation do an extraordinary thing.”

Although the project was originally a collaboration between a number of unpaid individuals, funding has recently come from a number of individuals and foundations. This money has been used to set up a small office in San Francisco’s Presidio district and expand the website to include a comprehensive explanation of the “heroic imagination.”

The Heroic Imagination Project’s pilot program began last September at two local high schools: ARISE High School in Oakland, which has a mostly low-income, minority student body, and Foothill Middle College in Los Altos, a more middle-class environment.

Students spent the fall semester learning the principles of social psychology that relate to heroism. They watched videos of such famous experiments as Stanley Milgram’s 1963 study on obedience to authority and Zimbardo’s own prison study. Through a basic knowledge of psychology, students gained an understanding of the power of the situation over their own behavior as well as how to surpass these influences and act heroically regardless.

“I came up with the idea that there’s kind of a pause button,” said Clint Wilkins, the project’s director of education. “What we hope to teach kids is to push that pause button in their soundtrack and have some of the lessons from social psychology seep in and, in psychological terms, fill that space between stimulus and response.”

Zimbardo says the initial impetus for the project came from his own experiences while writing his 2007 book “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” and a personal realization that the psychological mechanisms mediating “evil” behavior are far better researched than those regarding “good” behavior.

The book “is fifteen chapters of grim, grim, grim, and I was up to here in evil,” Zimbardo said. “And I felt that I needed a respite and the reader would too. So the last chapter is essentially about goodness. [The] first part of it is, how do you resist these powerful forces that I had helped create—dehumanization, deindividualization, obedience of authority, diffusion of responsibility…and then I realized, during the literature search, we know almost nothing about heroism. There’s no systematic research.”

Zimbardo begins Heroic Imagination Project
(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

This spring, students will develop their own service projects in order to exercise their “heroic imaginations.” They plan to identify those ordinary individuals around them who have committed heroic deeds and to document their stories.

Furthermore, the project has partnered students from Woodside High School with residents at Palo Alto’s Sunrise Senior Living in the “TechHeroes” program, in which students help the elderly use technology to improve their quality of life and archive their wealth of knowledge.

“There’s an old Indian saying I love to quote. I don’t know who said it, but I love what it means,” said Jenny Donegan, manager of the TechHeroes Project. “It says that when an old person dies, a library burns. So one of the beautiful things about every participant in the TechHeroes program is that they have opportunities to become heroes in their own stories and in the stories of others.”

Zimbardo hopes to bring the concept of “heroism”—a concept which he believes has diminished over the last decades—to the forefront of worldwide thought.

Heroes “were always male warriors—Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus,” Zimbardo said. “It eliminates women, it eliminates young people. These are male, adult killers, essentially.”

In fact, Zimbardo adds that even modern heroes, like Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Gandhi, “in a way are wrong heroes for the average people.”

“They organized their entire life around service to humanity. For most people, that’s too much of a sacrifice…step one is to change the conception of heroes,” he said.

Zimbardo also mentioned a number of future initiatives, including a partnership with one of China’s top science and technology schools, whose position as a feeder school to the Chinese technology industry could potentially produce additional funding, and an online “Heropedia” of individuals who have come to embody the Heroic Imagination Project’s ideals. He has already received commitments to help build the site from individuals at Google and Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia.

“The ultimate goal,” Zimbardo said, “is to make as many people as possible, in every city and every state and every nation, to fit our definition of heroes.”

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