I was listening to The Tim Ferriss Show and I heard Dr. Philip Zimbardo.  He is a past professor from Stanford University, was president of the American Psychology Association and wrote The Lucifer Effect and The Time Paradox among other books.  He is well-known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students took on the roles of prisoners and guards for a 24-hour-a-day experiment.  It only lasted six days instead of two weeks due to the psychological trauma on the participants.  Most recently, he is studying heroism by asking what makes some people turn to evil things and others act like heroes and help others? 

Dr. Zimbardo said, “So, the year is 1971.  It’s the ‘70s.  Exciting things are happening in psychology.  A little bit earlier at Yale, Stanley Milgrim, who was my high school classmate at James Monroe High School in the Bronx in 1950, he had done the classic research on blind obedience to authority, in which he got mostly men, ages 20 to 50, not college students, to play the role of a teacher who is going to help students improve their memory by punishing errors.  The way they would punish the error is by giving them escalating levels of electric shock to their fingers.  What happened is the confederate, who was pretending to be the student of the teacher, began after a while to yell and scream and say, “I have a heart condition. I don’t want to go on.”  The question is, would anybody continue?  The experimenter kept saying to the real participant, “You must go on.  You have a contract.  You must continue, Teacher.”  The amazing thing is, two of every three of these adults went all the way to 450 volts, which in a sense could’ve been lethal.  I should back up and say when Milgrim asked 40 psychiatrists at Yale Medical School what per cent of all Americans would go to the bitter end, their estimate was 1 per cent.  Because to do so, you’d have to be a psychopath.”

Wow… 75 per cent went to the bitter end rather than the 1 per cent prediction.

Next, he spoke about his Stanford Prison Experiment saying, “What we did is we put an ad in the Palo Alto newspaper.  Wanted: college students for study of prison life that could go up to two weeks.  75 people answered the ad.  We interviewed each of them.  Gave them a battery of personality tests.  We picked two dozen who were normal and healthy in every way we could imagine.  Then what happened was, we randomly assigned half to be guards, half to be prisoners.  In that setting, they became prisoners or guards.  Now, of course we made it realistic.  They had different kind of uniforms.  Guards had symbols of power: billy clubs, handcuffs, military-style uniforms.  The prisoners were in uniforms that simply had a number on it.  We took away their name.  They became dehumanized.  The amazing thing was in 36 hours, a normal, healthy college student – and these were not students from Stanford – they were from all over the United States who were in the Bay Area finishing up summer school.  One of the prisoners, 8612, I still remember vividly, had an emotional breakdown.  Screaming, crying, out of control.  Each day thereafter, another prisoner had a similar reaction.  We ended the study after five days because it was out of control.  We could not imagine that a social situation could have such a profound impact.  But what happened was the guards really became creatively sadistic.  There were three guards working eight-hour shifts and there were three shifts.  There were nine prisoners at any one time, three in a cell.  Then the remaining, they were backup guards and backup prisoners.  The study ended on this very down note of good kids doing really bad things to each other, creatively evil in the role of guard.”

Normal kids.  Being told they were authority and had to keep others in line.  And what happened next was so traumatizing that it ended the experiment.

How many times does this happen in society?  People doing what the crowd is doing.  In high school or politics or at work?   And is it the person or the group or the system?

Dr. Zimbardo addressed this by saying, “That became an interesting metaphor.  Bad apples, that’s what’s wrong with the individual, versus bad barrels, which is the situational analysis.  Then, of course, the system is the bad barrel makers, the people who make those situations and sustain them.”

He adds… “The point is, evil comes in many sizes, many shapes.  There is the evil of action, doing bad things.  But there’s also the evil of inaction, not doing the right thing when you could.  So, this is what comes up in the bystander effect, made famous I guess 60 years ago, in New York City, when a young woman was being assaulted, Kitty Genovese, and screamed and screamed and people heard and no one came to her aid.  The bystander metaphor is that people around the world do not come to the aid of someone in an emergency who needs their help.  These are fundamental themes that it’s so easy to cross the line and all the research done in psychology – Milgrim’s study, and many other experiments. The curious thing is, even though the majority gives in, complies, conforms, there is always a minority – 10 per cent, 20 per cent, sometimes 30 per cent, who resist.”

How can we be in the minority who resists?  Do the right thing or not be a bystander?  How can we help our children be in that minority too?

This is so interesting to me.  How a few words from someone ‘in charge’ can change everything.

He also mentioned how rather than focusing on how to be a hero, think about how to do heroically kind things, quietly, through your day.  This primes your mind to be ready for the big situation when it arises.

He said when we think of heroes, “We think about Agamemnon and Achilles.  We think about modern heroes like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa.  But those people are lifelong heroes.  What we should really be thinking about is ordinary people, like any of us, ordinary people who at some times do extraordinary deeds of goodness, of kindness, of compassion. We should think of them as heroes in training.  That is, each day doing daily deeds of goodness and kindness that are not heroic in and of themselves, but they’re really on a path toward heroism.”

I love that.  Doing a chore for someone.  Getting an answer for someone.  Going that extra mile in an ordinary way.  That is something anyone can take on.  Rather than trying to change the world all at once.  Change it in tiny steps of kindness.

“Most of the evil of the world comes about not out of evil motives, but somebody saying ‘get with the program, be a team player’; this is what we saw at Enron, this is what we saw in the Nixon administration with their scandal,” said Dr. Zimbardi.

May we all be mindful of times when we should speak up, stand out and ask questions.  Listen to that quiet voice inside.  Be there for the downtrodden.  This is what makes an everyday hero.  This is what will change the world.