Published: June 9th 2012June 9th 2012
On August 14, 1971, Philip Zimbardo, a young Stanford University psychologist turned the basement of the psychology building into a prison. Zimbardo was seeking to better understand the development of norms and the effects of roles, labels, and social expectations in a simulated prison environment. He recruited 24 young white middle class male students to play the roles of prison guards and prisoners. These were everyday common people like you and I with no previous history of mental illness, criminal record or abuse toward others. The guards were given very little instruction, only that they should maintain order and prevent escape. Students knew they were being watched and recorded and the experiment was to last two weeks. After six days the experiment was halted because the make-belief prison had been turned into a torture chamber. Even Zimbardo, acting as prison warden, had fallen into a role of allowing abusive conditions to be tolerated. It was another Stanford psychology professor stepping in to witness what was happening who brought an end to the experiment. Zimbardo later apologized for his "sins of ommission" in his book entitled, "The Lucifer Effect." If you search You Tube there are several good documentary pieces of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
So what? Well, have you ever found yourself watching a documentary about the Jewish holocaust or genocide in Rwanda or the killing fields of Cambodia and asking, "how could people do that to one another?" And then it happens again and again....Libya, Syria, Iraq against the Kurds, Somalia, Bonsia, Abu Ghraib (American perpetrators), bullying in your local high school. We watch these atrocities with assurance that, "I could never do anything like that." Yet Zimbardo's research indicates in the right social setting you most certainly would. It all sounds pretty dark, huh? Well, there is some good news in all of this.
Zimbardo, now 78 years old and professor emertis at Stanford is doing the most important work of his life. He has started the Heroic Imagination Project to demonstrate that you can take virtually any average person and turn him or her into a hero as long as you create the social context for it. What I've been able to see through reading about and now experience in Cambodia is that the country suffers terribly from post tramatic stress. Many people here will cheat or steal from a friend and corruption has become so ingrained into the culture that elementary school children are expected to pay their teacher a bribe just to attend school. The teach 'em early how the system works. Of course some of this is rooted in the fact that school teachers cannot survive (we're talking buying food, not making a house payment) on a teacher's salary. Position equals status and status equals power and power equals the abillity to extract money or favor from others. This is ubiquitous, not something most people even recognize as out of the norm. In fact it is the norm.
However, even with all of this there are many Cambodians who have chosen a different path. I was told there of more NGOs (non-profit, social benefit organizations) operating in Cambodia than in any other country in the world. Now there are certainly more than a few that operate at the same level of corruption as the rest of society but there are many doing unbelievable work in child trafficking, HIV/AIDS, abuse against women, the environment, clearing landmines, preserving ancient history, rescuing abandoned children, issuing micro-credit, emergency food relief, and the list goes on. My belief is these everyday heroes are not being celebrated. I have designed a laboratory class where students will create their own image of themselves as a hero. They will keep a journal through the entire class about their experience of trying to live their life as a hero. At the same time, each student will find someone they look up to locally who they consider to be a hero and study that persons life. They will also invite that person into the class where the class will hear their hero story and how they came to do the work they are doing. At then end of the class each student will present their hero's journey talking about their own transformation and what they have learned about living into their heroic imagination. I think we can create a virtuous cycle of good deeds and heroes and they will have developed a supportive network that will break some of the cycles of unethical behavior, dishonesty and corruption. We'll be keeping student's stories and tracking them in order to better understand the transformation of everyday people into heroes. We certainly have plenty of examples of how everyday people become despotic so now it's time to look into the light.
So thanks for listening and I'll enjoy hearing whatever comments you have. BTW, Zimbardo is doing his project all over the place. He's working in schools that have been plagued with bullying, he's working in corporate settings where people work around the rules (i.e., Enron, financial collapse of 2008) he's working in communities. There is a lot to learn to better understand the process of becoming a hero. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all lived up to our own ideals of ouselves as a hero? Today is a new day, give it shot!