“We are all born with this tremendous capacity to be anything” so says Phil Zimbardo psychologist and a professor emeritus at Stanford University. It’s an intriguing concept to explore and it has been Zimbardo’s mission to understand human impulses – to look at why we are how we are – why some cross the line between good and evil – why some are able to act heroically.
Hannah Arendt also put considerably effort into understanding our capacity for evil, particularly in analysing the rise of Nazi Germany. How is it that faced with the choice of collaborating to help your Jewish neighbours escape or giving them up to the regime, that so few took the higher path. Her conclusion chimes with Zimbardo’s – “all that is needed for evil to thrive is for good people to do nothing”. “Arendt called it the “Banality of Evil”, Zimbardo bouncing off her observations wants us to consider the opposite the “Banality of Heroism” – that we can be taught to resist our usual compulsion to be part of the herd. To this end he has instigated The Heroic Imagination Project (HIP).
HIP trains participants to become accustomed to standing out from the crowd – small acts like walking around the city dressed as a bunny. Most of us have been taught to mind our own business, to not get involved, Zimbardo says that consequently we will be “guilty of the evil of inaction… And you have to say, “Mama, humanity is my business.”
Fellow researcher, Stanley Milgram conducted his famously controversial experiment on Obedience to Authority in the 1960s, he quantified “evil as the willingness of people to blindly obey authority.” In response to this Zimbardo advises that “The key to heroism is two things:
A: you’ve got to act when other people are passive.
B: you have to act socio-centrically, not egocentrically.”
So how is it we become passive and ego-centric? Zimbardo has developed a hit list:
· Dehumanization of others
· De-individuation of Self
· Diffusion of personal responsibility
· Blind obedience to authority
· Uncritical conformity to group norms
· Passive tolerance to evil through inaction or indifference
All of which seem obvious when you think about it and you can see that when these acts are combined together they have the power to erode any inclination to action. That’s why it’s important to admire heroic acts – it takes bravery to be a whistle-blower, to save lives to disobey authority, to be non-conformist, to speak up, to take action. Zimbardo exhorts us to focus on the positive to “Advocate for respect of personal dignity, for justice and peace.” That sounds worthwhile.