Heroism 101

Phillip Zimbardo – originator of the Stanford Prison experiment – now focuses his research on ways to “train” people to avoid unethical conformity:

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.

It’s still too soon for a long-term verdict on the curriculum, but early assessments indicate hero project’s approach is one to watch. In pilot programs at high schools in California’s Bay Area, kids who’d taken a hero course showed an enhanced understanding of concepts like the bystander effect and the ways people defer to authority, and they reported being more reflective and compassionate after taking the course.