TOPICS : Bringing out the hero within us

The photographic images taken by US military police playing the role of prison guards in Abu Ghraib prison, some of which had remained unseen until I showed them recently during a lecture at a Californian media conference, are a case study of evil in action. They

are vivid examples of digitally documented depravity and dehumanisation.

Over the last three decades, my research and that of my colleagues has demonstrated the relative ease with which ordinary people can be led to behave in ways that qualify as evil. We have put research participants in experiments where powerful situational forces — anonymity, group pressures or diffusion of personal responsibility — led them blindly to obey authority and to aggress against innocent others after dehumanising them.

I argue that while most people are good most of the time, they can readily be led to act antisocially, because most are rarely solitary figures improvising soliloquies on the empty stage of life. On the contrary, people are often in an ensemble of different players, on a stage with various props, scripts and stage directions. Together, they comprise situations that can dramatically influence behaviour. Programmes of change follow a medical model of rehabilitation — therapy, re-education and treatment — or a punitive model of incarceration and execution. But all such programmes are doomed to fail if the main causal agent is the situation or system, not the person.

Two kinds of paradigm shift are required. First, we need to adopt a public health model for prevention of violence, bullying, prejudice and more that identifies vectors of social disease to be inoculated against. Second, legal theory must reconsider the extent to which powerful situational and systemic factors should be taken into account in punishing individuals. In experiments we have conducted, we find that although most conform, yield and succumb to the power of the situation, there are always some who refuse and resist. They do so in part because they are more sensitive to these situational pressures and are able to engage effective mental strategies of resistance against unwanted social forces.

I propose a situational perspective for heroism, just as I do for evil: a situation that can inflame the hostile imagination and evil in some of us can inspire the heroic imagination in others. We must teach people to think of themselves as “heroes in waiting”, ready to take heroic action in a particular situation that may occur only once in their lifetime.

Our society needs to consider ways of fostering such heroic imagination, particularly in our young. If we lose the ability to imagine ourselves as heroes, and to understand what true heroism is, our society will be poorer for it. We need to create a connection with the latent hero within us. This vital, internal conduit between the modern, workaday world and the mythic world of super heroes can prepare an ordinary person to become an everyday hero. — The Guardian