What Makes a Hero?


There’s been scant evidence on what makes a hero, but the famous psychologist Philip Zimbardo is working on understanding it (as described in a recent Edge.org posting).

What’s fascinating about this interview with him is that he recounts how it was his then-girlfriend who turned out to be the “hero” who stopped the Stanford prison experiment back in 1971.  Read the below passage to see how everyone involved - professors, priests, police and parents - didn’t think anything “wrong” was happening and it took an outsider to end it.  The “banality of evil” indeed:

One way of looking at the consequences of the Stanford Prison Study is as a cautionary tale of the many ways in which good people can be readily and easily seduced into evil.  But there’s an equally important – maybe more important – consequence of the study, which  is what it tells us about the flip side of human nature.  The Stanford Prison Study was ended abruptly: it was supposed to run for two weeks and it ended – was terminated – after only six days because of a very heroic act.

A young woman, a former graduate student of mine named Christina Maslach, who had just gotten a job as assistant professor in psychology at Berkeley, came down to our experiment on Thursday night.  I had  arranged for many people who knew nothing about the experiment to come down to interview everyone – our staff, the prisoners, the guards – to get a fresh look, an outside impression, of what was going on in our study. When she came down that night, she observed the ten o’clock toilet run. Prisoners were lined up to go to the toilet, and this was the last time they could go to the toilet for that night. They were lined up, guards put bags over their heads, chained their legs together, had them put their hand on each other’s shoulder, and then marched, sounding out their ID numbers. I was doing something; she was standing behind me.  

I looked up and said, “hey, Chris, look at that,” and turned around to look at her.   She was looking away and I said, “hey, don’t you see that. Isn’t that interesting”

She started tearing up, and ran out. I ran after her, and said, “don’t you see that, isn’t that interesting?”

She said, “no, it’s not interesting, it’s awful.”

 I said, “what do you mean it’s awful?”

She said, “it’s terrible, what you’re doing to those boys. I’m not sure I really want to continue to know you.”  We had just started dating, and she said, “I’m not sure I want to continue our relationship, if this is the real you; you’re not the person that I have come to love.”

That was like a slap in the face. She was saying that I had been transformed. I was looking at the same thing she was looking at, and saw it as interesting human behavior under the experimental microscope; whereas she was looking at young boys being dehumanized and tormented in my dungeon prison.

At that moment, I said, “you’re right. I have to end the study.” And we did; we ended it the next day. Our encounter was around 11 PM: I needed time to call in all the staff, the prisoners who had been released, I had to call in all the guard shifts. So we ended it the next day – because she was willing to challenge authority, and risk our relationship.

Now what makes this especially powerful is that more than 50 other people had come down to that prison, including a priest who had been a prison chaplain (while he was there interviewing the boys, one broke down right in front of him), and a public defender.  We had a parole board hearing, with secretaries and others not associated with our research team, we had parents’ night and visitors’ night, with their kids telling them how terrible it was, and they all left the prison saying it was an interesting simulation, and that I was doing interesting work.  Christina was the only one who really said ‘the emperor is wearing no clothes’ and reminded me that I was responsible for the evil going on in that situation. This was especially heroic because, first, we had just started dating, and this could mean the end of our loving relationship, and secondly,  I was her main recommender, the main academic reference. She had already gotten a job at Berkeley, but still, I was a full professor and she was just starting out.  She was willing to sacrifice both the personal and the professional relationship to stand firm on her stance of valuing human dignity. (Incidentally, we were married a year later at the Stanford Chapel, and soon will be celebrating our 35th anniversary.)

Saturday, May 5, 2007

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