On 9/11, people from all types of backgrounds, neighborhoods, religious affiliations, etc. reacted courageously in the face of mortal danger. In Boston, during the immediate aftermath of the Marathon bombings, bystanders provided vital, life saving care.
This being the anniversary of 9/11, what else might be appropriate to highlight but the ongoing work of psychologist Phil Zimbardo to grow the number of individuals willing to take action in the first place?
Over the past few decades, psychologist Phil Zimbardo has established himself as a kind of emissary to the dark side of human nature. Thousands of college students learn each year about his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he tapped half the participants to play “prisoners” and half to play “guards.” The experiment was to run for two weeks, but after just a few days, the guards started acting so sadistically—ordering the prisoners to strip nude and clean toilets with their hands, among other things—that Zimbardo called the experiment off. The study ultimately became psychological shorthand for what can happen when normal people get social license to behave badly.
This is the “negative” side of Zimbardo’s work history. How exactly will this help foster a cadre of individuals willing to selfishly sacrifice their safety, security, and comfort in order to help others affected by the event in question? Well….Professor Zimbardo moved on to a connected, if different, topic:
If the Stanford Prison Experiment reveals how easy it is for people to behave poorly in certain situations, the Heroic Imagination Project asks how we as a society can do better—and aims to supply convincing answers. To that end, Zimbardo and his colleagues, including longtime educator Clint Wilkins, have devised a heroic education curriculum oriented toward helping high schoolers recognize negative situational influences and rise above them. That way, they can behave in ways consistent with their true values.
According to a principle known as the bystander effect, for instance, we’re less apt to help someone in need if there are others standing around; we may not feel as compelled to act if we think another person will step in. The hero project’s curriculum teaches students to use a mental “pause button” so that they can avoid falling prey to automatic assumptions (“Someone else will take care of it”) and choose a more thoughtful response instead. Similarly, instructors warn students how easy it is to slide into conforming with what others are doing—even if it’s something unethical like bullying a fellow student—and emphasize the importance of standing alone when necessary. In addition to learning how to overcome tendencies that may hold them back from helping, heroes-in-training get to flex their selflessness muscles by brainstorming social change strategies (helping fellow students struggling with math, say) and testing them out in the real world.
Preparedness professionals have long argued for placing such education onto school curriculums. This course represents, at least in terms of what I can identify, a worthwhile experiment in moving in that direction.