Philip Zombardo's Heroic Imagination Project

Teaching heroism
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"The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do bad things, but because of those who look on and do nothing". Albert Einstein

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the founder of the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP), believes that heroism can be taught and has developed a program designed to help children learn how to be heroes. Most people know Zimbardo as the man behind the famous Stanford prison experiment, a study that demonstrated how people are heavily influenced by social and situational pressures.

In the experiment, participants took on the roles of guards and prisoners in a mock-prison setting. Originally slated to last two weeks, the study had to be terminated after just six days as the guards became domineering and abusive and the prisoners became distraught and depressed.

Today, Zimbardo's HIP programs "are designed to instill in the present generation — and in future ones — the notion of heroism not as something reserved for those rare individuals who do or achieve something extraordinary, but as a mindset or behavior possible for anyone who is capable of doing an extraordinary deed."

For many, this might sound like a radical concept. After all, popular depictions of heroes often describe these individuals as having something that the average person simply does not. According to the common views of heroism, these heroes possess qualities that allow them to rise up at the right moment and assert their bravery in the face of danger, peril, or opposition. They are special. They are rare. Simply put, they are "born with it."

Zimbardo suggests that this simply isn't true. "We've been saddled for too long with this mystical view of heroism," he suggests. "We assume heroes are demigods. But they're not. A hero is just an ordinary person who does something extraordinary. I believe we can use science to teach people how to do that."

Obstacles to Heroism

The HIP program consists of a four-week curriculum aimed at adolescents that begins with students taking a hero pledge. Over the next four weeks, students learn about the darker side of human nature including Milgram's obedience experiment (which demonstrates how far people will go to obey an authority figure), the prevalence and impact of prejudice, social roles and expectations, and the bystander effect (in which people are less likely to offer assistance to a person in need if others are present).

Building Empathy

The second stage of the program focuses on helping students overcome these problems by building empathy, including increasing their understanding of the impact of the fundamental attribution error, or our tendency to ignore how context and situational variables influence behavior. This is important, Zimbardo suggests, because one of the major reasons we fail to help other people is due to our tendency to believe that they deserve what is happening to them.

By making students aware of the fallacy that people deserve that bad things that happened to them, they are less likely to 'blame the victim' and more likely to take action.

Studying Heroes and Putting It Into Practice

Studying the lives and stories of legendary heroes is another important part of the program. A range of real-life individuals and fictional characters ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Harry Potter serve as models of virtuous and heroic behavior. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the students are asked to start putting what they have learned during the program to work in the real world. Like any skill, Zimbardo believes that heroism takes practice. Participants in the program start small by doing one thing each day to help another person feel better. The goal is that these baby steps will serve as a stepping stone toward a lifetime of helping behaviors.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in teaching heroism lies in those popular perceptions of exactly what makes a hero. If you ask many people today to list some heroes, responses will likely include pop culture figures such as professional athletes and actors. "One of the problems with our culture is that we've replaced heroes with celebrities," Zimbardo says. "We worship people who haven't done anything. It's time to get back to focusing on what matters because we need real heroes more than ever."

1 Source
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  1. Stanford University. The Stanford Prison Experiment: A Simulation Study of the Psychology of Imprisonment conducted August 1971 at Stanford University.

Additional Reading
  • Allison ST, Goethals GR. Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

  • Becker SW, Eagly AH. The Heroism of Women and Men. American Psychologist. 2004;59(3):163-178. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.59.3.163

  • Zimbardo P. What makes a hero? Greater Good. 2011

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.