skip to main content

Social Psychologist Outlines What Makes a Hero


Launching his lecture swaying to Santana’s “You’ve Got to Change your Evil Ways,” Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., may have seemed a touch non-normative for some academic circles.

But, according to the renowned social psychologist, stepping outside of one’s behavioral comfort zone is often what it takes to become a true hero.

Zimbardo, Stanford University Professor Emeritus and author of The Lucifer Effect (Random House, 2007), spoke at Fordham on March 4 on the social natures of evil and heroism—both of which exist in just about everyone. Zimbardo’s talk was sponsored by the psychology department, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and the American Psychological Association.
(story continues below)

Social psychologist and Bronx native Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D., (right) chatted with freshman Junique Folks following his lecture at the Rose Hill campus on the heroic imagination.
Photos by Janet Sassi

The psychological definition of evil, said Zimbardo in his talk, “The Heroic Imagination,” is the abuse of power to intentionally harm other people. That said, it can be administered individually by the “bad apple”, situationally by the “bad barrel of apples” or—in its most damaging form—systemically, by the “bad barrel makers.”

“What makes good people go wrong? It’s a question that has been asked for centuries by philosophers and poets and theologians, but not by psychologists,” said Zimbardo, who grew up in the South Bronx and attended high school with another famous social psychologist, Stanley Milgram. “Anyone can be evil. You can get most people to cross that line even if they think they’re not that kind of person.”

Although their professional careers remained separate (Zimbardo was at Stanford; Milgram was at Yale and City College), Zimbardo noted that “even back in high school, Milgram and I were embryonic situationalists.”

Curious about what causes evil behavior, i.e., one’s capacity to inflict pain and suffering upon another, Zimbardo created the 1971 Stanford Prison experiment, in which 24 college students participated in a two-week-long ‘mock’ prison situation as either guards or inmates. After just six days of roleplaying, student-prison-guards grew so abusive to student-prisoners that the experiment had to be halted.

The results of Milgram’s Obedience Experiments of the 1960s were also enlightening as to what causes a situation where persons can behave badly. Participants were ordered by an authority figure to administer shocks to a subject-learner when he or she got an answer wrong. Although the shocks started out at a benign 15 volts, 26 out of 40 participants, or 65 percent, were willing to administer up to 450 painful volts even if it clashed with their personal conscience.

In situational evil, Zimbardo said, it is the environment—for example, peer pressure—that contributes to the decision to choose bad behavior.

Harold Takooshian, Ph.D., professor of psychology, presents Zimbardo, a Bronx native, with a proclamation from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz.

“All evil begins with 15 volts. It means that you are the accountant for Arthur Andersen and someone from Enron says ‘the numbers don’t match and could you just change a few numbers,’ that’s the 15 volts. That’s the way Enron committed fraud. Nobody cooks the books before somebody warms the books.”

Zimbardo gave as another example Abu Ghraib prison, where guards on the night shift routinely abused and tortured Iraqi prisoners, while dayshift guards did not.

“We are powerful social influence agents. We create a ripple effect. If people see us breaking the law, they are liable to break the law.”

But such a ripple effect can be just as effective with heroic behavior, said Zimbardo, who recently created The Heroic Imagination Project ( to inspire students toward acts of heroism.

“It’s basic social psychology,” he said. “You transform your personal virtue of compassion into the civic virtue of heroism.”

In order to ‘teach’ heroism, Zimbardo makes students aware of antiheroic traits, such as the Bystander Effect, the egocentric point of view, and blind obedience to authority. He asks students to put themselves in situations: Would they walk by the body of a dying child on the street, as several people did in China in 2011?  Would they rescue a person in front of an oncoming train, like New Yorker Wesley Autrey did in 2007?

Knowing what heroic action is obligates one to take action, he said. And practice helps. One exercise Zimbardo suggests that students try is to put a black circle on their forehead for a day, and leave it regardless of peer comments.

“Most heroes are defiant,” he said. “They have inner power to resist the power of groups.”

Another exercise is to focus on others. “Every day make somebody feel special with a compliment.”

And a third is to instigate “courageous conversations” with peers, parents, bosses and others, before situations get out of control.

“It’s not enough to have good intentions, you have to take good actions,” he said. “And you have to be ready for it, because if that big opportunity presents itself and you don’t take [heroic]action, you will always be ashamed you let it pass by.”

You can view Zimbardo’s presentation here.


Comments are closed.