The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo  


By Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo

lthough much of the Lucifer Effect text revolves around the negatives of human behavior, salvation comes in the final chapter (16) where I flip the coin and celebrate what is best in humanity-- those among us who move from passive observers to take heroic action. In celebrating heroism, I challenge the traditional view of heroes as extraordinary people, as super-special agents of noble deeds. In doing so, I distinguish between those rare people whose whole lives are centered around sacrifice for the good of society or for the well being of their fellows, chronic heroes, and those ordinary folks who are moved to an heroic deed in a specific situation at a particular time.

Their heroic deeds are always special, but these heroes are just plain folks, ordinary citizens, who “do what they had to do” when moved to action by some call to service. Typically, they say, “It was nothing special;” “I did what anyone would do in that situation.” And some add, “and what everyone ought to do.” I refer to this phenomenon as “the banality of heroism.” Doing so, obviously trades off of its similar opposite in the phrase coined by Hannah Arendt, “the banality of evil,” that she used to describe why modern criminals, like Nazi Adolph Eichmann were so frightening precisely because they are “terrifyingly normal.”

We also want to believe that there is something IN some people that drives them toward evil, while there is something different IN others that drives them toward good. It is an obvious notion but there is no hard evidence to support that dispositional view of evil and good, certainly not the inner determinants of heroism. There may be, but I need to see reliable data before I am convinced. Till then, I am proposing we focus on situational determinants of evil and good, trying to understand what about certain behavioral settings pushes some of us to become perpetrators of evil, others to look the other way in the presence of evil doers, tacitly condoning their actions and thus being guilty of the evil of inaction, while others act heroically on behalf of those in need or righting injustice. Some situations can inflame the “hostile imagination,” propelling good people to do bad deeds, while something in that same setting can inspire the “heroic imagination” propelling ordinary people toward actions that their culture at a given time determines is “heroic.” I argue in Lucifer and recent essays, that follow here, it is vital for every society to have its institutions teach heroism, building into such teachings the importance of mentally rehearsing taking heroic action—thus to be ready to act when called to service for a moral cause or just to help a victim in distress.

One important distinction is that between physical risk and social risk types of heroism. Heroism in service of a noble idea is usually not as dramatic as physical risk heroism. However, physical risk is often the result of a snap decision, a moment of action. Further, physical risk heroism usually involves a probability not the certainty of serious injury or death. The individual performing the act is generally removed from the situation after a short period of time. On the other hand, it might be argued that some forms of civil heroism are more heroic than physical risk forms of heroism. People like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dr. Albert Schweitzer willingly and knowingly submitted to the trials of heroic civil activity day after day for much of their adult lives. In this sense, the risk associated with physical-risk heroism is better termed peril, while the risk involved in civil heroism is considered sacrifice.

"I did what anyone would do, and what everyone ought to do."

This statement is by a New York construction worker after he rescued a young man from the subway tracks on which he fallen during a seizure. While 75 people watched from the platform, and did nothing, Wesley Autry, did something. He handed over his two daughters to a stranger to care for them as he jumped down on the tracks and held down the man between the two tracks as the subway train ran over them. They both survived, but this African-American everyday hero also had the presence of mind while the train had stopped over their bodies to shout up to the woman caring for his children that he was OK, not to worry. Watch a news clip about this event.

Zeno Franco and I are developing a conceptual model of heroism, which is outlined in Chapter 16 and in a recent article in the magazine Greater Good. Some of these ideas are also presented in a small essay in O magazine, both appended. We are in the process of developing a web site that will serve as an online resource for doing survey research on heroism, gathering alternative views on heroism, viewers sending exemplars of their ordinary heroes, and more.

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©2006-2014, Philip G. Zimbardo



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