Essays on the Theme of Heroism

Professor Philip Zimbardo - Psychologist

by Roberto Donati

A life dedicated to awakening tomorrow's heroes
Philip Zimbardo, PhD (Photo courtesy of the Heroic Imagination Project)
Philip Zimbardo, PhD (Photo courtesy of the Heroic Imagination Project)

In the world of psychology there aren't many people better known than Dr. Philip Zimbardo. If you took an introductory psych course in college you probably used one of Dr. Zimbardo's textbooks. If you watch TV you've probably seen him on The Colbert Report, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or as host of the PBS series Discovering Psychology. And if you follow the ins and outs of our field, you know that he's been president of the American Psychological Association, that he's one of the most sought-after lecturers in the world and that he was responsible for one of the most famous social experiments of all time, The Stanford Prison Experiment. In short, he's a bona fide international superstar. But to me, Dr. Zimbardo is more than that, to me he's a hero.

His Work

The results of his Stanford Prison Experiment showed that our society and our environment can sometimes influence good people to do terrible things. Dr. Zimbardo wondered if these results could be turned on their head and put to good use. Since then he's dedicated his life to achieving this goal.

Apart from teaching, doing research and lecturing for the past 50 years, he also founded The Shyness Clinic in Northern California, to help and treat adults and children with this socially debilitating condition. He's written best-selling books (The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil) that point out the influence our surroundings have on our behavior. And in 2004, he famously challenged the U.S. government's position in the Abu Ghraib trials that the atrocities in the prison were due to a 'few bad apples.'

His life's work however is culminating with the creation of The Heroic Imagination Project, an organization whose ultimate goal is to increase the occurrence of civil acts of everyday heroism in society.

We must challenge our traditional notion of what a hero is...

Dr. Zimbardo explains that in our society, traditionally the idea of what a hero is comes from Joseph Campbell, a hero is a mythic larger than life figure, one we usually associate with a warrior or a war hero. Also, especially in America and other individualistic societies, we see a hero as someone unique and unusual with a special set of personal virtues (or supernatural powers) who does something extraordinary - like Superman or Wonder Woman.

Through The Heroic Imagination Project, Dr. Zimbardo wants people to challenge these traditional notions: 1) You don't have to fight to be a hero, you can be a peace hero, 2) Heroic acts shouldn't be "extraordinary" - they can be acts that are performed all the time because our society expects it, and 3) Anyone can be a hero.

Philip Zimbardo, PhD<br>Photo courtesy of the Heroic Imagination Project
Philip Zimbardo, PhD
Photo courtesy of the Heroic Imagination Project

How do we create every-day heroes?

Dr. Zimbardo's Heroic Imagination Project is dedicated to fostering the belief that we are all 'heroes in waiting', and that we all have the potential to act heroically when called upon to do so. He stresses the importance of taking small steps, like complimenting someone every day, or not being afraid to ask for help. Heroism doesn't have to be dramatic. One way we can achieve this goal is by nurturing Heroic Imaginations, especially in our kids:

1) Encourage awareness. Heroes have a good sense of when people are in trouble. If we sense that things are a little bit out of place or don't fit, we can avert the danger before it happens, like stopping a bullying classmate.

2) Show kids they have the power to resolve conflicts. Teach kids that it's more heroic to resolve conflicts through dialogue than by fighting.

3) Foster action instead of inaction. It's easy to be a bystander when we see someone being bullied, but research shows that kids are more likely to do something if their parents and friends expect them to.

The vision of Dr. Zimbardo to create a community of educators and leaders devoted to exploring ways to encourage HEROISM in young people is truly inspiring. He has learned so much over the years about the power of community and society to affect behavior, his new mission to foster and promote heroism has great potential to affect positive change in our society.

Page created on 3/15/2013 1:53:49 PM

Last edited 8/25/2018 7:03:21 PM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

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Extra Info

Zimbardo receives the 2005 Havel Foundation Vision 97 Award

Professor Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D. (Emeritus, Psychology Department, Stanford University) received the The Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation Vision 97 Award in Prague (Oct.5) for the year 2005. The award to Zimbardo was given for his efforts to enhance the human condition by countering evil, ignorance and shyness through research, teaching and social action. Zimbardo served as President of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2002, and is currently Chair of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP).

The foundation, established by Czech ex-president Havel and his wife, Dagmar, has been annually awarding the prize since 1999. The prize is awarded to an individual whose work has made a major contribution to broadening human horizons, drawing attention to lesser known phenomena and contexts, integrating science into the general culture and promoting human views of the world.

Past winners include: Austrian-born U.S. neurosurgeon Karl Pribram, Economist and Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, Robert Reich, Italian writer Umberto Eco, Czech philosopher and biologist Zdenek Neubauer and German-born U.S. computer scientist, Joseph Weizenbaum.

Listen to the Havel Foundation interview.

About the Author

Roberto is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist currently practicing in Beverly Hills, California. He's also written articles for Marie Claire, National Geographic Traveler and Casa Viva Architecture and Design. He also works as an actor and director.


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