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After ‘Evil’ Experiment, Psychologist Inspires Heroes


Research psychologist Philip Zimbardo launched the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 to investigate the psychological effects that power has on people. He divided young volunteers into two groups – prisoners and guards – to better understand how good people turn evil. Things soon spiraled out of control and Zimbardo had to halt the experiment early after many guards were said to have exhibited “genuine sadistic tendencies” toward the mock prisoners.

We caught up with Zimbardo recently and discovered that the man made famous for his experiment with evil is now studying the opposite question, asking, “Can we inspire ordinary people and then educate them to be what I call, ‘everyday heroes in training?'”

To find out, Zimbardo has created the Heroic Imagination Project, which teaches people how to take effective action in challenging situations. One of the ideas behind the project is that merely treasuring values like empathy and compassion is not enough. “My argument is empathy and compassion only have value when it leads to action,” he says. “Empathy and compassion don’t change anything. They make the world feel better. Heroism changes the world to make it function better.”

In this podcast, Zimbardo discusses his famous experiment and how its findings played out in his professional life, he talks about why most of us don’t act heroically when given the opportunity, and makes the case for why the world needs a “hero squad” right now.

Additional Resources:

Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project

Zimbardo’s TED talk introducing the Heroic Imagination Project

The Stanford Prison Experiment website

The New Yorker article: The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment

The Good Men Project: We Need a Deeper Psychology of Men

Zimbardo on Twitter

Featured Image: Philip Zimbardo

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