Philip Zimbardo [4.11.07]
Introduction by:
Philip Zimbardo

"...little is known about the psychology of heroism. There’s a scant body of empirical literature, and most of it consists of interviews with people weeks, months, or decades after they have done a heroic deed. Much of the first work on heroism came from interviewing Christians and others who helped Jews during the Holocaust. Nobody asked the question “did anybody help?” until 20 years later. People helped in every country,where the lives of Jews were on the Nazi stake. However, the main response that researchers got during interviews with these people was, “it wasn’t special.” Regardless of what they did, or where they did it, or how they did it, these heroes typically said, “I am not a hero. I did what had to be done. I can’t imagine how anybody in that situation who wouldn’t do it.” Some of these heroes tended to be more religious than not, and tended to have parents who had been active in various kinds of causes. However, many more religious people with socially-politically active parents did nothing to help."

Introduction by Russell Weinberger

In the summer of 1971, Philip Zimbardo and his team of reseachers at Stanford University designed and conducted a landmark psychology experiment that would forever change our understanding of human behavior.  24 volunteer college students were randomly assigned to roles of prisoners or guards in a mock prison located in the basement of the psychology building at the university.  The results were shocking. Within days, the "guards" turned authoritarian and sadistic while the "prisoners" became passive and started to show signs of severe depression.  What was supposed to be a 2 week experiment had to be shut down after only six days.  

Known simply as the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo's study is one of the most famous experiments in social psychology and remains, along with Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiments, one of the most shocking. But that was just the beginning of the story.

The results of Zimbardo’s study were clear: human nature is malleable and the wrong situation can bring out the worst in most people.  But what of the exception? What of the individual who does not succumb to the influence of environment and fights the powers that be?

Edge sat down with Zimbardo to discuss his latest thinking on the nature of heroism, where it comes from, and how it can be fostered.


PHILIP ZIMBARDO is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University. He is a founder of the National Center for the Psychology of Terrorism, and creator and co-director of The Shyness Clinic.



PHILIP ZIMBARDO: One of the questions I’ve been asking myself is, Is there a counterpart to Hannah Arendt’s classical analysis of evil in terms of her phrase “the banality of evil.”  If you remember, she created that concept after having watched the trial at Nuremberg of Adolf Eichmann and the other Nazi henchmen accused of the mass murder  – genocide – of millions of Jews. And one of the questions the world was asking itself was, “How do we understand these monsters?”  After these lengthy trials, Eichmann and others were assessed, interviewed, and studied inside out by teams of psychiatrists.  Their conclusion, at least in the case of Eichmann, was that he was absolutely normal. In fact one report-writer said, “He’s more normal than I am. He’s a good father, good husband, good citizen.”

Hannah Arendt was trying to make sense of the contrast between the man who orchestrated the deaths of around two million Jews and the one on trial who was normal, intelligent, witty, charming.  And that contrast was really terrifying. In fact, the phrase she used to describe Eichman was that he was so terrifyingly normal that this was a new kind of monster – a monster that we are not prepared to face and fight because he looks just like us.  He looks just like our next-door neighbor, and that’s what’s frightening.  The evil that we see in the media and in art is always packaged as monsters:  they are easily distinguishable, you know they are the enemy, and it’s easy to arm yourself against them. But when an enemy looks like your father, when the enemy looks like your wife or kids, then there’s no preparation for it. Especially when there are lots of those enemies and they could be anywhere. They are faceless and placeless, and that’s the ultimate fear.

In her analysis, Ardent was saying that from everything we knew about his history, Eichmann was essentially a normal person before he went into Auschwitz.  And when he came out of Auschwitz he was again assessed as a normal person.   So the interesting question is, what was the process of transformation from before to after his being embedded in that situation. As a social psychologist, I bring forth the power of situations to transform good people into evil, which is what I’ve been studying since my Stanford prison study way back in 1971. I argue that there are some features of special situations that can corrupt the best and brightest. Normal people, even good people. Not all, but most. And the ones who resist, the ones who somehow have the street-smarts – the situational sophistication – to resist are the exceptions. In fact, I’m going to call them heroes.  

Arendt’s analysis is really a forerunner of the situational analysis, although she doesn’t express it as such.  There is no question that what Eichmann did was evil, but there’s also no question that when he was outside that situation, he was normal. The issue then is, what is it about the particulars of that situation that was able to transform this person.  My Stanford Prison study was focused on exactly that point.  What made it unique and different from most other research is that I knew on August 14, 1971 that every one of those student volunteers for that study, who had come from all over the United States, was an absolutely ordinary normal intelligent young man.  We gave the volunteers a battery of psychological tests, in-depth interviews, and we only picked the two dozen who were most normal, most healthy.  What is special about experiments like these is that they involve random assignment to conditions.  We flip a figurative coin and one of these normal guys is a prisoner and another one is a guard, and so forth. At the beginning of the study, there’s no difference between those who are playing the role of guards and those who are playing the role of prisoners. You can ask, why we didn’t just go observe what happens in real prisons? The answer is that in real prisons, you confound whatever is bad in the place with whatever is bad in the people who go into that place: you confound whatever selection factors there are in who becomes a guard and whatever selection factors there are in who becomes a prisoner.

So we knew, at that particular time, that our prison was populated by middle-class, normal, intelligent, ordinary people who had no history of crime, drugs, or violence.  In fact – it was 1971 – these kids were civil rights activists, anti-war activists – mostly hippies, with hair everywhere. We put them in a place that I had constructed to exemplify the psychology of imprisonment. I had conducted a course the previous summer with an ex-convict, Carlo Prescott, on the psychology of prison, and I came to understand the psychological foundations of the mentality of a guard and a prisoner. And we recreated that prison environment in this setting – in this Stanford basement dungeon.

In one sense, the Stanford Prison Study was like a Greek drama: it was pitting good people against an evil place, and the question was, who or what wins?  The audience, and the chorus, want the people to win. We want humanity to triumph over evil; we want personal dignity and the individual’s will to resist, to dominate.  The sad story, the sad conclusion, the sad message is that the bad situation won, and the good people lost. Now, it could be that this was a unique setting.   Of course, it was unique in that nobody had ever done an experiment like this and, because of the ethics involved now, the study is hermetically sealed. It can never be done again. But in fact, the more basic point that I tried to draw is that there are many situations in which we find our selves  –  in work, in school, at home - where there are things about that setting, things about that situation, that can corrupt our good nature.  There are things that undermine our morality, that can start us on the slow path, – it’s always a slow path, it’s always a gradual path – to doing things we never could have imagined. And evil awaits us as the end game on that path.

My research really says several things. One, that we have to recognize that some situations, some social settings, some behavioral contexts, have an unrecognized power to transform the human character of most of us.  Two, that the way to resist – the way to prevent a descent into Hell, if you will – is precisely by understanding what it is about those situations that gives them transformative power. It is by this understanding that you can change those situations, avoid those situations, challenge those situations. And it’s only by willfully ignoring them, by assuming individual nobility, individual rationality, or individual morality that we become most vulnerable to their insidious power to make good people do bad things. Those who sustain an illusion of invulnerability are the easiest touch for the con man, the cult recruiter, or the social psychologist ready to demonstrate who easy it is to twist such arrogance into submission.

One way of looking at the consequences of the Stanford Prison Study is as a cautionary tale of the many ways in which good people can be readily and easily seduced into evil.  But there’s an equally important – maybe more important – consequence of the study, which  is what it tells us about the flip side of human nature.  The Stanford Prison Study was ended abruptly: it was supposed to run for two weeks and it ended – was terminated – after only six days because of a very heroic act.

A young woman, a former graduate student of mine named Christina Maslach, who had just gotten a job as assistant professor in psychology at Berkeley, came down to our experiment on Thursday night.  I had  arranged for many people who knew nothing about the experiment to come down to interview everyone – our staff, the prisoners, the guards – to get a fresh look, an outside impression, of what was going on in our study. When she came down that night, she observed the ten o’clock toilet run. Prisoners were lined up to go to the toilet, and this was the last time they could go to the toilet for that night. They were lined up, guards put bags over their heads, chained their legs together, had them put their hand on each other’s shoulder, and then marched, sounding out their ID numbers. I was doing something; she was standing behind me.  

I looked up and said, “hey, Chris, look at that,” and turned around to look at her.   She was looking away and I said, “hey, don’t you see that. Isn’t that interesting”
She started tearing up, and ran out. I ran after her, and said, “don’t you see that, isn’t that interesting?”

She said, “no, it’s not interesting, it’s awful.”

 I said, “what do you mean it’s awful?”

She said, “it’s terrible, what you’re doing to those boys. I’m not sure I really want to continue to know you.”  We had just started dating, and she said, “I’m not sure I want to continue our relationship, if this is the real you; you’re not the person that I have come to love.”

That was like a slap in the face. She was saying that I had been transformed. I was looking at the same thing she was looking at, and saw it as interesting human behavior under the experimental microscope; whereas she was looking at young boys being dehumanized and tormented in my dungeon prison.

At that moment, I said, “you’re right. I have to end the study.” And we did; we ended it the next day. Our encounter was around 11 PM: I needed time to call in all the staff, the prisoners who had been released, I had to call in all the guard shifts. So we ended it the next day – because she was willing to challenge authority, and risk our relationship.

Now what makes this especially powerful is that more than 50 other people had come down to that prison, including a priest who had been a prison chaplain (while he was there interviewing the boys, one broke down right in front of him), and a public defender.  We had a parole board hearing, with secretaries and others not associated with our research team, we had parents’ night and visitors’ night, with their kids telling them how terrible it was, and they all left the prison saying it was an interesting simulation, and that I was doing interesting work.  Christina was the only one who really said ‘the emperor is wearing no clothes’ and reminded me that I was responsible for the evil going on in that situation. This was especially heroic because, first, we had just started dating, and this could mean the end of our loving relationship, and secondly,  I was her main recommender, the main academic reference. She had already gotten a job at Berkeley, but still, I was a full professor and she was just starting out.  She was willing to sacrifice both the personal and the professional relationship to stand firm on her stance of valuing human dignity. (Incidentally, we were married a year later at the Stanford Chapel, and soon will be celebrating our 35th anniversary.)

So that was the start of my thinking about heroism, about what makes people engage in heroic acts.  It turns out that, more recently, there was an even more dramatic incident of heroism. An army reserve MP  –  a private at the bottom of the ladder in the military  –  named Joe Darby saw the horrendous images of the abuse at Abu Graib, that his buddy Corporal Charles Graner gave him on a CD that was circulating among soldiers in that facility. Darby looked at the hundreds of images of abuse and degradation of Iraqui detainees, and said, “this is horrible  –  this is immoral. I have to turn these in to authorities; this should not be allowed to continue.”

It was his act that stopped the abuses. It was especially heroic because, being a lowly private army reservist, he had to take it to a senior officer in the investigating unit, and that took a lot of guts. He also knew that his buddies in his unit were going to get in trouble, and that if they got in trouble, there could be serious consequences.  Namely, they might harm or even kill him. But he did it anyway; he did the right thing. In the end, he had to be put in protective custody for three years because everybody wanted to kill him – not only the people in his unit, but the people in his home town. The military also had to hide his  mother and sister to protect their lives. Darby was seen as a traitor to America, to the honor or the military and to the Bush administration because he exposed the abuses and thus became an enemy of the people. The messenger was the enemy, rather than the people who gave him that message.   Those two acts are acts of heroism by ordinary people and, to me, this really is the flip side of Hannah Arendt’s, banality of evil, with what I have termed “the banality of heroism.”

Heroes come in two varieties. There are life-long heroes: people who dedicate their whole life to a mission, to a cause, to sacrificing themselves – Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, to mention a few. These are extraordinary individuals. Most people in the world who engage in heroic acts are more like Christina or Joe Darby.  These are individuals who find themselves in a particular situation – one in which other people are looking the other way or continuing to perpetrate an evil behavior – and who, for some reason we don’t know, take heroic action. They do something to stop it – blow the whistle or otherwise challenge it in a direct way. That action is “heroic,” even if the people are “ordinary.”  My sense is that the typical notion we have of heroes as super-stars, as super heroes, as Superman, and Batman, and Wonder Woman, gives us a false impression that being a hero means being able to do thing that none of us can actually accomplish.  I want to argue just the opposite: that what we have to be doing more and more is cultivating the “heroic imagination” – especially in our children.   The models of behavior that we want to give them are not rock stars, are not hip-hop artists, are not media celebrities or sports celebrities, – or even comic book heroes.  Rather, it is the ordinary New York subway hero, Wesley Autrey, the 50-year old African-American construction worker who saved the life of a young man who had fallen on the train tracks from a seizure. While 75 others passively watched, he handed his two daughters over to a stranger and jumped down to save someone he did not know from death or dismemberment from and on coming subway. “I did what anyone would do, I did what everyone ought to do,” were Autrey’s  classic ordinary hero lines.

Cultivating the heroic imagination involves just two aspects. First,  thinking of yourself as an active person rather than a passive person: thinking of yourself as somebody willing to get involved; to move off the safety spot of minding your own business; to take a decisive action when the world around you looks the other way. Second, thinking less about yourself, less about your ego, your reputation, less concerned about looking foolish, making a mistake, upsetting someone’ s apple cart, and becoming socio-centric – more concerned for the well-being of others or upholding a moral imperative. Perhaps it also entails a dash of optimism, so that you believe you have the power to change something bad by your actions.

Whistle blowing heroes are also willing to lift the veil of secrecy that usually conceals the truth, greed and illegal practices.  In response to pressures to be a team player, to get with the program, to see the situation in ways others frame it, these heroes are willing to resist those social and career pressures and see the situation not the way it is,” but rather in the way it should be.” 

Interestingly, little is known about the psychology of heroism.  There’s a scant body of empirical literature, and most of it consists of interviews with people weeks, months, or decades after they have done a heroic deed.  Much of the first work on heroism came from interviewing Christians and others who helped Jews during the Holocaust.  Nobody asked the question “did anybody help?” until 20 years later. People helped in every country,where the lives of Jews were on the Nazi stake. However, the main response that researchers got during interviews with these people was, “it wasn’t special.”  Regardless of what they did, or where they did it, or how they did it, these heroes typically said, “I am not a hero. I did what had to be done. I can’t imagine how anybody in that situation who wouldn’t do it.”  Some of these heroes tended to be more religious than not, and tended to have parents who had been active in various kinds of causes. However, many more  religious people with socially-politically active parents did nothing to help.

 To study heroism, what is required  is being  there at the moment of the heroic action, because what you have to study is the decision-making dynamic. You have to be there at the decisive moment of the heroic action, or immediately after. We have to ask  “what’s going through your mind? Why are you doing this? Why are you taking this action rather than that? Is it that you’re a hero because you never thought  through the possible negative consequences to you? Or you worked them through and said, it doesn’t matter?”  Researchers have never done this. So what we need to do is create an experimental framework – something like the Milgram study.  The study would study people in a paradigm where most would be induced to do bad things.  But the moment somebody does the good thing (stops,  resists,  disobeys, challenges the system),  is the moment at which you want to understand what is going through his or her mind. What is the cost/benefit reasoning involved? That’s the kind of research I’m planning  to be doing in the future.

Right now my concern is just getting people to begin to think more and more about the ordinariness of heroes. The celebration of heroes – our society does not truly celebrate whistle-blowers, indeed most end up being punished in various ways.  We also have a notion of heroes as physical heroes – soldiers in battle, policemen, firemen at the World Trade Center – and surely they are heroes, there’s no question about it. But that sets a barrier between them and the rest of us, who are not in uniform, who have not had their training, or who are women, children and the elderly.

Another example is the heroes that we study in our school:  in literature we study The Iliad, the Odyssey, Agamemnon, Achilles, and other mighty warriors, and on the home front, there are our war heroes like Generals Lee, Grant, McArthur, Patton, Eisenhower. These are legendary figures who are not in any way comparable to the rest of us mere mortals.  Every society needs such larger-than-life figures, but if they are what we think of  as heroes, then the secondary consequence is for us to say, “I could never be that. I wouldn’t want to have to make that huge sacrifice, or bear such a burden.”  I think, on the other hand, we each could say, “I could do what Joe Darby did, I could do what Christina Maslach did.  I could do what that construction worker did on the New York subways to save a life in distress. And that is the central tenet of heroism: taking action. It’s moving yourself from lethargy to action, from the safety of passivity to the danger of action. If you’re passive and do nothing, you’re never going to get in trouble, you’re never going to look foolish, you’re never going to do the wrong thing. You’re never going to misread the cues and take action when it’s not necessary, because maybe you’ll make a mistake. That doesn’t matter, you take action when you tell yourself “I don’t care – the way I see the situation, I have to take action.” So the question is, how do you promote that heroic imagination in various settings? How do you promote that in a family? How do you promote that in a school? How do you promote that in a corporation? And, to use an old-fashioned phrase from the 70s, how do you empower people to take action when action is called for? When in fact, in most institutional settings (starting with the family), action against authority is prevented, minimized, or turned down, as we would rather respect unjust authority than to act to overthrow it.

I can remember Miss Weinstein, in the sixth grade, when she was teaching algebra, we had to sit on our hands because she didn’t want us to interrupt to ask a question. Since her class I have associated algebra with pain. Because your hands got numb, and after a while you didn’t care what she was saying, you didn’t want to ask questions. Well, she destroyed my love for math – and I’m sure that of other kids as well. So, how do you create a system in which I would have felt impelled to go to the principal and say, that what Mrs. Weinstein is doing is wrong, that she is perverting the educational system. Or, less brave, just to send a note, anonymously, from a student in Mrs. Weinstein 6A3 class. Well, why didn’t I do it? I never imagined I could do it and if I did it would matter, it would make a difference to get  her to “change her evil ways.”

I’m sure that story can be repeated over and over again.  Well, in a really fundamental way, the system has to build in the possibility for itself to be  challenged. The system has to have enough gumption to face challenges openly: a school where kids have a way to point out the abuse of teachers; a family structure in which kids can talk freely to their grandparents, uncles or other relatives about their abuse.  How many kids throughout the world are in families where one or more of the kids is being abused? Physically abused or sexually abused cloaked in silence. What keeps it going is the system passivity. It’s that nothing in that setting allows kids to be empowered, or gives kids the freedom to say  – as Joe Darby did, as Christina did  – “this is wrong,” and then to take the next step and stand up to try stopping it by telling somebody who will listen and help to change a wrong into a right.

I think the same can be said for WorldCom and Enron. Why did things go wrong for so long? And these were not kids in a classroom; Enron was supposed to have hired the best and the brightest, and for a long time many folks knew that illegal practices were abounding, books were being cooked, and lies were being spread about the success of the company even as it was failing.  The system did not empower people to question or challenge anything even though it was going horribly wrong.  It is what has come to be known as “administrative evil” in which systems adopt legal-political ideologies that enable any means necessary to achieve the desired end goals of profit, success, of “better, faster, cheaper.” That goes beyond teaching a heroic imagination in individuals to building systems into our institutions that will create an atmosphere of empowerment  – for students, for employees, for patients, for parishioners, for everyone within their orbit of power. My research reveals how easy it is to create environments that will bring out the worst in people. Now the time has come examine the other side of the coin and discover how we create environments that bring out the best in human nature, that truly enable ordinary people to go beyond resisting temptation to challenging its domain.

My new mission is developing a two-pronged approach to heroism.  First, what do we do in a culture to cultivate the heroic imagination in the minds of individuals.  What do we need to give people a sense of personal empowerment, the feeling that “I can make a difference,” that “I should make a difference,” and that “I HAVE to make a difference” when the situation calls for action as  those around are doing nothing.  But secondly,  how do we begin to create situations that will empower those people  – those kids, those workers, those adults, those mental patients, those prisoners  – to constructively challenge wrong-doing and bad deedsin their life setting.  So essentially the task before us is to discover what we need to do  to change our institutions to make them “hero-engendering,” while at the same time working to create enough heroes-in-waiting who are ready and willing to do what is necessary to right wrongs, step forward to act to challenge unjust systems, and come to the aid of anyone who needs our help. I have begun to write about these new conceptions of the banality of heroism; however, going beyond words to changing real people and real institutions is a tall order. We are now talking about fundamental changes in society that can ultimately impact on our humanity. I hope to be a leader in this new revolution of making heroes more common, more prevalent, and more truly respected for the value they make in enhancing the human condition.