Everyday Heroes

A psychologist, known for his study of evil, is fascinated by what was good in the Arab Spring.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, famous for his study of evil, is fascinated by what was good in the Arab Spring. The uprisings against dictatorship were an expression of profound moral courage, he says, a sign of the rise of the individual. He finds this particularly intriguing because of his latest focus, the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP), a non-profit organization based in San Francisco he founded in 2010 to “transform negative situations into positive change.”

In a lecture in March at the American University in Cairo, Zimbardo, 82, explained his career shift from examining the psychological drivers of evil to exploring the tenets of positive action. He is best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted in 1971, which recruited male college students to role-play guards and prisoners in a pseudo jailhouse. Even in the transparently simulated environment, Zimbardo found, participants in the experiment were willing to torture other participants psychologically—with “guards” sadistically humiliating “prisoners” through acts such as stripping them naked, depriving them of sleep, and forcing them to wear bags over their heads. He concluded that humans are not inherently evil, yet can be driven to evil acts when operating within certain systems under certain conditions. Zimbardo believes that his findings help explain the notorious abuse of Iraqi inmates by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. His research is the basis for the 2015 psychological thriller directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford and past president of the American Psychological Association, deconstructed the Stanford Prison Experiment in his 2008 book, The Lucifer Effect. While traditional research studied the individual’s behavior to understand evil, Zimbardo argues that evil should be examined on three levels—the individual, the situational, and the systemic. Factors such as political tensions, he explains, can contribute to manifestations of evil as much as a person’s personality traits. If that is the case, he says, then people have the capacity to suppress evil impulses because they can recognize the situational or systemic factors contributing to them.

The process of writing Lucifer—“fifteen chapters of ugliness and evil,” he recalls—inspired Zimbardo to shift his research focus to investigate ways to resist evil. That in turn led to HIP, which trains educators, students and non-profit organizations to identify negative scenarios, such as bystander apathy, when an individual chooses to follow the crowd and not act in the face of injustice. He developed an educational program called Exploring Human Nature, which uses social psychology research to build lessons that concentrate on the dynamics of situations rather than the characteristics of individuals. It rests on the belief that ordinary people are capable of taking extraordinary action.

HIP currently holds workshops in the United States, China, and Europe. Zimbardo believes that HIP could be a positive influence in Egypt’s ongoing political and social transition. HIP’s operating principles, he explains, include the daily practice of heroism through deeds such as showing compassion to others, being kind, helping, smiling, and making others feel special and valued. Changing Egypt will require individuals to believe that even in the face of significant obstacles they can be effective agents of change. That, many would agree, will be another revolution.