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Journeying From Evil to Heroism

Why did some kids give in and start down that slippery slope of evil, while others resisted and stayed on the right side of that line separating good from evil?
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EVIL: How and why do good people turn evil?


GOOD: How can ordinary people be inspired to act heroically?

These two questions have been challenging me since I was a kid, and finally after many decades, I have discovered answers that I need to share with everyone who might care about these fundamental issues about Human Nature.

Growing up in poverty in the inner city of the South Bronx, New York City, means that I, like all such kids similarly situated everywhere in the world, was surrounded by evil. There were and are always hustlers, guys who make a living by getting good kids to do bad things for a little money, like steal, run drugs, sell their bodies, and worse. Why did some kids give in and start down that slippery slope of evil, while others resisted and stayed on the right side of that line separating good from evil?

As a religious little Catholic kid, I dutifully prayed to God to help me resist such daily temptation and deliver me from evil, it was hard to really count on God having the time to check out what was happening around 1005 E. 151 St. There were wars to attend to, Hitler to be contained, hurricane victims needing help, and Communists to be converted. So I reasoned I had to be more self-reliant and band with buddies I could trust to provide strength in our numbers against those perpetrators of evil. And it worked for some of us.

This concern continued for much of my life, until, as a research psychologist, I reasoned the best way to understand evil, was to go beyond theological analyses, philosophical discourses and dramatic renditions, to actually "create" evil in order to understand its dynamics from the inside out. My classmate from James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Stanley Milgram, had set a workable agenda for doing so through his pioneering investigation of Obedience to Authority back in 1963. His experimental research at Yale University quantified evil in a novel way: how many volts of electric shock would someone administer to an innocent victim when an authority figure ordered him or her to take such action that went against conscience. His findings shocked the world: The vast majority of participants, ordinary adult citizens, two of every three, went all the way down the 30 switches on the shock generator from an insignificant initial mere 15 volts, increasing incrementally by 15 more volts, until they got to 450 volts. Danger! Potentially lethal!

Although the research participants, acting as Teachers punishing their Learners for their errors -- to ostensibly help improve their memory -- believed their learner-victim was being shocked from the screams heard over the speakers, the learner was actually a confederate with responses automated.

What is the lesson to be learned here? Bad people will inflict pain on innocent victims when given permission to do so. No.

Most ordinary, even good, people are vulnerable to subtle, pervasive situational forces when they are in new circumstances where usual, habitual ways of behaving are not relevant.

I took that message a step or two further in my 1971 study, known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Could a situation be created in which normal, healthy, intelligent college students inflict pain on their peers in the absence of any authority commanding their obedience? My "subjects" were two dozen students from all over the country who had just finished summer school in local colleges, chosen from among 75 who had answered an ad for a psychology study of prison life to run for up to two weeks. By random assignment, half became prisoners who lived in our simulated jail 24/7, while the others were guards working each of three eight-hour shifts. The sad sack prisoner uniforms, with their new identity numbers prominently displayed on their smocks, contrasted with the military-style uniforms of the guards who also displayed their various symbols of power. The situation created was a functional simulation of American prisons in many ways; in short, it was an "Evil Barrel" into which we put a bunch of "Good Apples," at least on day one.

We are training ordinary people on how to become everyday heroes by learning how to stand up, speak out and take wise and effective action in the challenging situations they face daily at home, school, business, community and nation. - Dr. Philip Zimbardo

Would an evil place that was populated with only good people dominate and corrupt them, or would humanity win out and keep them decent and caring despite such a situation? Within 36 hours, one of the normal, healthy college students had a severe emotional breakdown and had to be released from his prisoner role. On each of the next five days and nights, other prisoners broke down in similarly disturbing ways. I was forced to terminate this experiment, to shut down my prison after only 6 days; it had spun out of control.

Bad news in this particular contest between good and evil: evil 1, humanity 0.

My situation was a setting where institutionalized evil dominated. Rules, roles, uniforms, policies, group dynamics, arbitrary power differentials -- all within a physical context that gave legitimacy to the treatment of other people in dehumanizing ways. This metaphor of powerful guards dominating powerless prisoners is not limited to either my mock prison or real prisons, but can be seen in many settings: traditional marriages, mental hospitals, schools, military and business settings.

So the findings of the Milgram obedience experiments (in its 19 variants), combined with those of the Stanford Prison Experiment, reveal the extent to which human behavior can be situationally influenced, even dominated, in ways that we are reluctant to acknowledge. We all want to believe in the dignity of individual character and free will. That dignity is best served by recognizing our vulnerabilities and learning how to develop our "situational awareness," as a kind of ghetto "Street Smarts," in every context we enter. We can resist such powerful forces only by becoming savvy to the operation of myriad of social-situational forces in our lives, on the "dark side" (as our former VP Dick Cheney reminded us, this was the way we would deal with terrorists).

This allusion leads us to year 2004 and the horrific images of American soldiers, military prison guards, men and women, seen in their own photos torturing and degrading their Iraqi captives in Abu Ghraib Prison. Doing so all while smiling, with high fives all around. Who were these bad apples, disgracing not only the military but America's war effort to bring democracy, freedom and dignity to a people long dominated by a cruel dictator?

For me, I was as shocked as anyone, but I was also hardly surprised, because the visual parallels with my prison study seemed direct. I contended in many media interviews that I believed our soldiers were good apples that someone had put into a very bad barrel in that prison dungeon. I became an expert defense witness for one of those guards, in part to better understand how he and all the other MPs on his night shift on Tier 1-A could have perpetrated such terrible deeds. In that capacity, I had access to all the existing investigative reports and the full collection of the condemning photos. I believe I was able to show, to demonstrate, with a variety of evidence, how Sgt. Chip Frederick, like the other MPs, fell under the spell of a situation that was created by some "Bad Barrel Makers." This was a system of power that mismanaged the prison, combined with a narrow-minded military leadership and a war-focused presidential cabinet. All the MPs received dishonorable discharges, some with long prison sentences, while their officers were never tried. They did not even receive letters of reprimand for their "command complicity" in abuses that went on under their watch for three solid months.

I summarized all that I had learned about this torture center, as well as the first full presentation of the Stanford Prison Experiment in my 2008 book, The Lucifer Effect. That same year, I was invited to present my ideas (worth spreading) at the TED Conference. It was difficult to contain all these ideas into the tight, 18-minute limit that is the TED signature, despite practicing on the main stage earlier. I am a 60-minute academic dude, but I would try my best to squeeze into that slot. But, just as I was racing toward the end, shifting focus and asking the audience how ordinary people can act heroically, the bell sounded with no time on the clock.

I swear that I felt the audience simultaneously hold a collective inhalation. Just then my deus ex machina ascended the stage to tell the audience that he had heard the rehearsal and that what was coming was too important to stop now, so he would violate policy and allow me a few more minutes. With that temporal reprieve from Chris Anderson, TED major domo, the audience exhaled and I raced on for five more minutes with the good news ending: that it was possible to inspire people, especially our youth, to learn how to transform compassion into heroic action. Standing ovation.

Having nearly fainted from hyperventilating for talking faster than I ever had, I was happy just to be standing. Immediately after, many TEDsters encouraged me to develop the hero project more fully, to scale it up, to develop a non-profit, to start a foundation, a business. I even got seed funds from Pam and Pierre Omidyar, eBay founders, to do so, and I did.

I went on from this exhilarating experience to create a San Francisco based non-profit, The Heroic Imagination Project, HIP.

We are training ordinary people on how to become everyday heroes by learning how to stand up, speak out and take wise and effective action in the challenging situations they face daily at home, school, business, community and nation. We have developed a full educational program, based entirely on proven social psychological research in six areas, as well as a corporate leadership program designed to encourage heroic leadership. We are also doing and supporting others' research on the nature of heroism. Finally, we are planning a mobile phone app with daily exercises for all those who want to start on the bright path of becoming Heroes-In-Training. If we succeed, then, we will reverse the score: evil 0, humanity 1.

I need your help to make this mission into a national and international movement that has the potential to change the world for the better, one hero at a time.

I welcome sponsors and funders who believe that by working together we can all do it -- heroically.

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This story appears in Issue 40 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 15.

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