The Banality of Heroism

Philip Zimbardo, the psychiatrist in charge of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment has a new venture – he’s studying the components of heroism.  Zimbardo and his associates believe that instead of looking at heroes as the exception, we should create an idea of heroism as banal and commonplace.  They believe that we will all have occasion in our lives to make heroic decisions and if we see heroism as a universal attribute of human nature, we are more likely to do the right thing, even when we are under pressure and afraid.

Zimbardo et al believe that this reconfiguring of heroism as a commonplace attribute can guide our behaviour in moments of moral uncertainty.

There are a number of steps that Philip Zimbardo believes will help us to foster ‘the heroic imagination’ we need to progress in this regard.

  • We can start by remaining mindful,carefully and critically evaluating each situation we encounter so that we don’t gloss over an emergency requiring our action. We should try to develop our “discontinuity detector” — an awareness of things that don’t fit, are out of place, or don’t make sense in a setting. This means asking questions to get the information we need to take responsible action. 
  • Second, it is important not to fear interpersonal conflict, and to develop the personal hardiness necessary to stand firm for principles we cherish.  
  • Third, we must remain aware of an extended time-horizon, not just the present moment…In addition, we should keep part of our minds on the past, as that may help us recall values and teachings instilled in us long ago, which may inform our actions in the current situation. 
  • Fourth, we have to resist the urge to rationalize inaction and to develop justifications that recast evil deeds as acceptable means to supposedly righteous ends. Finally, we must try to transcend anticipating negative consequence associated with some forms of heroism, such as being socially ostracized. If our course is just,we must trust that others will eventually recognize the value of our heroic actions.(1)

Butterfly Effects for Change – Part 5 – Hero in ‘Train’ing?

 (1) The Banality of Heroism - Greater Good Magazine - Fall / Winter 2006-07 


    1. I love Philip Zimbardo’s idea that we can train for heroism. It makes sense to me as so often people (including me on occasion) regret not taking action in dangerous/difficult/frightening situations – if we had a conscious picture of ourselves as ‘banal heroes’ it might help when these things are suddenly upon us. Worth a try, I figure!

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