Professor Philip Zimbardo, one of the most respected psychologists in the world, has dedicated his life to these questions. Not long ago, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to meet him personally and discuss this topic.
Bad Sheep and the Blind Crowd
Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment and research, along with the Abu Ghraib prison guards have shown that even moderate, and originally decent people, can do very bad deeds under certain influences and circumstances. It doesn’t matter if the person is a family man, religious, or up until then, an irreproachable man.
Zimbardo took a group of student volunteers for the Stanford Prison Experiment and staged a prison in a basement. Half of the volunteers were prison guards, and the other half were prisoners. Already after a few days, the guards expressed very cruel behaviors – humiliation, abuse, and evil thought out punishments.
On the other hand, Abu Ghraib was a real prison in Iraq with Iraqi prisoners. The guards were American soldiers. Equally cruel behaviors were revealed between the guards and prisoners. Since this was not a controlled experiment, this situation was not terminated after a few days. The evil in Abu Ghraib grew uncontrolled for a long time...
What happened in these situations that made people act so cruelly? Zimbardo’s experiment has shown a big influence of the so-called bystander effect. It’s a phenomenon when a person does something because others are doing it too. The person doesn’t want to be subjected to social pressure that would distinguish him or her from the crowd.
“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who are watching them without doing anything.” -Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
The bystander effect is often the reason why homeless people stay homeless. They’re scared that the community of homeless “colleagues” would start looking at them as a traitor if they started looking for a job.
It’s uncomfortable for many people to leave the crowd, so they go along with it, even if they’d rather go elsewhere. Just look at recent history, like for example Germany in the 30s in the 20th century. It often just takes someone in higher authority to do something, and the crowd will follow. Psychopaths don’t perform the brutal acts of war, but normal people do it instead that are exposed to the pressures of the surrounding circumstances.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” -Edmund Burke, Irish political philosopher
The Hero is a deviant person
Why does a person sometimes appear to stand out of the crowd and point out flawed behavior? Why is there someone that’s able to stop by an accident while others walk right by? Those are the types of people that Zimbardo labels as heroes. He says that heroic skills can gradually be learned. His research shows that a hero isn’t born, but becomes one.
Zimbardo took a black pen to our meeting and drew a black dot on his forehead. He wanted to show us a simple way how to practice heroism. If a person has this black dot on his or her forehead all day and rides the bus, he or she gets used to others strange stares. It gets the person into the habit of being different. The unpleasant social pressure stops affecting the individual. The person gets used to leaving the social comfort zone and learns how to stand out of out of the crowd.
Training heroism makes it easier to step out of the crowd. Many people pass a car accident simply because no one else has stopped. Zimbardo says heroism doesn’t let the environment influence a person; he or she would stop and provide assistance. It’s the ability to stand out of the crowd and perform an action first. Heroes manage to be different because they’re already used to it. According to Zimbardo, a hero is a bit of a deviant person.
One of Zimbardo’s colleagues was a hero in one situation during the Stanford Prison Experiment. She stepped out of the crowd during the time of the experiment and forced him to stop it. Zimbardo later married this woman. In Abu Ghraib, a young soldier was the hero when he was able to leave his comfort zone and bring attention to the situation at the prison.
“The core of your life can be reduced to two types of actions: those taken and those not taken.” -Philip Zimbardo, psychology professor
The heroism of everyday life – leaving the comfort zone
The word heroism usually refers to extraordinary actions, but it should also be noted as a skill we use every day. The fact that someone can jump down in the subway railway to save a life, and the ability to avoid the delay of performing important daily tasks can both be seen as having the same principles. There’s only a different level of conscious skill used to leave the comfort zone.
In order to take action, it’s often necessary to get out of the comfort zone. If we’re supposed to get up in the morning, we turn off the alarm and leave our warm bed. If we want to help at an accident, we have to stop, get out of our car, and take action. Both cases deal with intentionally getting out of the comfortable zone.
Most of the important actions taken in our lives are those outside of our comfort zone. It can be a physical or social action. If we want to meet people, we first have to reach out. To succeed in business, we must be able to arrange business meetings, or meet people at networking events. In order to follow your life’s vision, it’s sometimes necessary to go a different direction than the rest of the crowd.
“The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.” -Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
Leaving the comfort zone is really important for achieving satisfaction. As we adapt to every comfort zone, we must learn how to leave it. Our brain then rewards us with dopamine, which is an organic chemical responsible for our satisfaction.
How can you train heroism?
Since heroism is considered a micro habit, it’s good to constantly think about it. It’s also good to get out of the comfort zone and take action. Whenever you can, try to leave your comfort zone. Talk to the person sitting next to you on the bus. If you don’t feel like doing anything during the day, try taking an action that is the hardest for you to do.
Daily heroism can be trained by using a method when you first wake up. It lies in doing the most unpleasant task first thing in the morning. This morning heroism will encourage you to take other heroic actions throughout the day.
If you think of performing a heroic action, it’s good to follow the samurai rule of three seconds. Take action within five heartbeats. If you start to overthink about the action, your mind will have the tendency to create justifications on why you should stay within your comfort zone.
Evil as a biased notion of good
Due to the Dunning-Kruger Effect (described in the article HERE), many people think that they’re doing something good, even when they’re really doing something bad. Hitler and Stalin also wanted to fulfill their vision of social welfare. Similarly, for example, interviews with mass murderers show that many of them don’t even realize that what they’re doing is wrong.
“Most human suffering caused by man is due to his belief in things that are proven to be false.” -Bertrand Russell, logic and philosopher, Nobel Prize winner
So how can you stop this unconscious evil? Anyone’s intentional actions that have a significant social impact should first look at the objective consequences. People should admit that their idea of good may be incorrect and can, in fact, be bad in the end. It’s no wonder they say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
What exactly is good vs. evil?
This philosophical question has been troubling people throughout history. Finding the correct answer in this field is problematic, and that’s why I’ll state my own subjective opinion.
I generally define evil as an individual’s actions that harm other people and groups that the individual is part of. Similar to the behavior of cancer cells, which harm the body that they’re part of.
I would define “good” as individual’s actions that lead to an improved function of the whole group that the individual is part of. It’s the ability to perform unselfish cooperative acts that lead to development and growth of other people and the group as a whole. This definition puts a lot of activities in the gray zone, where it’s hard to determine the final impact. Overall, finding some sort of objective good is a never-ending journey. Let’s be a hero every day by also questioning our own views. Trying to find out which views we hold are false is one of the biggest actions we can take to get out of our comfort zone.
“Follow the man who seeks the truth; run from the man who has found it.” -Charlie Chaplin, filmmaker
- Book: Haney, C.; Banks, W. C.; Zimbardo, P. G.: Study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Reviews, 9, 1–17. Washington, DC: Office of Naval Research. 1973.
- Book: Zimbardo, P.: The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Rider & Co; 1st edition edition. 576 pg. ISBN: 978-1844135776.