The Situationist

From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II

Posted by Philip Zimbardo on March 19, 2007

A Soul Brought to Heaven

Over the last month or so, I have authored a three-part series on the Situational Sources of Evil (see Parts I, II, and III). In that series, I describe how people too often miss the power of situation in explaining evil, and too often attribute “evil” to a person or group. Last week, I posted the first of a related two-part series. Part I of this series looked at some of the heavens and hells that I’ve witnessed or had a hand in creating and at how, if the situation is right, any of us can partake in what we would consider “evil” behavior. In this second part of that series, I will discuss strategies for resisting those powerful situational forces and becoming heroes.

* * *

Good news: We can resist powerful situations and even become heroes.

We need not be slaves to situational forces. In all the research that my colleagues in social psychology and I have conducted, we find that although the majority conform, comply, yield, and succumb to the power of the situation, there are always some who refuse, resist, and disobey. They do so in part because they are more sensitive to these situational pressures, more “street wise,” and are able to engage effective mental strategies of resistance against unwanted social forces. Some of what they know intuitively is how to spot and identify wolves dressed in sheep’s garments, smiling faces of con men and slick Sherron Watkins - Enron Whistleblowersisters with hot deals concealing manipulative intent. They are also more aware than most people of how their own thinking can contribute to distorting the scene before them, and thus needs some mental correcting.

In their arsenal of general resistance strategies, the first is always trying to be mindful of their place in any behavioral context, of not going on automatic pilot that triggers scripted behavior to unfold without critical awareness. They engage in critical thinking that goes beyond accepting other peoples’ definition of the situation, asking questions about how and why, and what happens down the road if they follow the prescribed path. That means developing “discontinuity detectors,” a sense of awareness of things that don’t fit, are out of place in this setting, that don’t make sense to you. It means asking questions, getting the information you need to take responsible action. It is important also not to fear interpersonal conflict, and to develop the personal hardiness necessary to stand firm for cherished principles. Think not of getting into conflicts, but rather challenging others to support their means, their ends, and their ideology. Take nothing for granted, be a hard-headed behavioral accountant. Finally, those who resist unwanted situational influences are willing to admit mistakes, of being wrong, of cutting bait rather than sticking with prior bad decisions; thus, they do not have to rationalize away earlier commitments made without full awareness of their consequences. Our hardy band of resistors insist also on retaining their personal sense of identity and self-worth, of not allowing others to de-individuate them or to de-humanize them. (A more detailed resistance guide is available here.)

Promoting the Heroic Imagination in Ordinary Heroes

When the mass of humanity is blindly obeying unjust authorities or bending to the will of corrupt systems of dominance, the few who resist are really heroes. Heroes are not only the courageous few whose brave physical dangers to help others in distress. Heroes are all those willing to make personal and social sacrifices for the good of others or their society.

Mandela (an amateur boxer in his youth) available at

Social heroism involves putting one’s self at risk in the service of an important principle or idea. Being a hero is not simply being a good role model or a popular sports figure. Heroism in service to a noble idea is usually not as dramatic as heroism that involves immediate physical peril. Yet social heroism is very costly in its own way, often involving loss of financial stability, lowered social status, loss of credibility, arrest, torture, risks to family members, and, in some cases, death. In contrast to those whose heroism involves life-long sacrifices or ordering their lives around principles of passive resistance to injustice, such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King, Jr., most// heroism can be a sudden, one-time act. It can be an almost instantaneous reaction to a situation, like that of the army reservist Joe Darby, who revealed the photos of Abu Ghraib abuses to a criminal investigator, and thereby stopped those abuses.

This heroic deed of this average young man reveals what I have termed the “banality of heroism.” The idea of the banality of heroism debunks the myth of the “heroic elect,” a myth that reinforces the false notion of ascribing very rare personal characteristics to people who do something special—to see them as superhuman, practically beyond comparison to the rest of us. Just as with the psychology of evil, situations have immense power to bring out heroic actions in people who never would have considered themselves heroes. In fact, the first response of many people who are named heroes is to deny their own uniqueness with statements such as, “I am not a hero, anyone in the same situation would have done what I did,” or “I just did what needed to be done.” Immediate life and death situations, such as when people are stranded in a burning house or a car wreck, are clear examples of situations that galvanize some people into heroic action. But other situations—such as being witness to discrimination, corporate corruption, government malfeasance, or military atrocities—not only bring out the worst in people; sometimes they bring out the best in others.

I believe that an important factor that may encourage heroic action is the stimulation of the “heroic imagination”– the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, mentally struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and consider one’s actions and the consequences. Such a mental orientation may make people more likely to act heroically when the time comes. By considering these issues in advance, the individual becomes more prepared to act when and if a moment arises that calls for heroism. It might mean stopping the cab driver as he starts telling his favorite racist or sexist joke. It could mean intervening when a relative starts slapping her child around at a family event. It should mean willingness to risk losing your job by exposing fraud and layton-book.jpgdeception as Sherron Watkins did at Enron, or even greater risks as Debby Layton did in exposing the dangers of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult in Guyana.

Strengthening the heroic imagination may help to make people more aware of the ethical tests embedded in complex situations, while allowing the individual to have already considered and to some degree transcended the costs of their heroic action. Seeing one’s self as capable of the resolve necessary for heroism may be the first step toward taking a heroic action.

Our society needs to consider ways of fostering such heroic imagination in all of its citizens, most particularly in our young. As the sophistication of video gaming grows, can the power of this entertainment form be used to educate children about the pitfalls of going along with a herd mentality? Or help them develop their own internal compass in morally ambiguous situations? Or perhaps even help them think about their own ability to act heroically? And as we plow ahead in the digital era, how can the fundamental teachings of a code of honor remain relevant to our daily human interactions?

If we lose the ability to imagine ourselves as heroes, and to understand what true heroism is, our society will be poorer for it. We need to create a viable connection with the latent hero within ourselves. It is this vital, internal conduit between the modern work-a-day world and the mythic world of super heroes that can prepare an ordinary person to become an everyday hero.

highway.jpgThere will come a time in each of our lives when three paths lie ahead. To the left, we follow the lead of others mindlessly engaged in some evil, practicing discrimination, or injustice, or abusing their fellows. That is the path of “perpetrators of evil.” To the right, we follow the lead of others who try to ignore the evil in their midst, smilingly looking the other way. That is the path of the “evil of inaction.” To the center, we make up our own mind, to act responsibly as individuals to stand up for what we believe in, to do the right thing when it is easier to do the wrong thing, or to do nothing. That is the path of “ordinary heroes.” Some day when You are faced with that decision matrix, what path will you take? Think Central, and be counted among those who represent this democratic ideal of ordinary heroes in your family, your community, and your nation.

*****See also Part I of this Series.*****

6 Responses to “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II”

  1. […] From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II […]

  2. […] Zimbardo has another post up at The Situationist: From Heaven to Hell to Heroes — Part II . (You can see the first part of this series here ) For some of us here in the Wood, I think this […]

  3. […] of King’s analysis of America’s situation in the 60s lends potent illumination to Philip Zimbardo’s post on Heroic Resistance, a post a commented on […]

  4. […] Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part I & Part II (by Phil […]

  5. […] Philip Zimbardo on the heroic imagination […]

  6. […] Situation of Ethics and Mediation,” “On the Ethical Obligations of Lawyers,” “From Heavens to Hells to Heroes – Part II,” “Person X Situation X System Dynamics,” “Situation” Trumps “Disposition” – […]

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