Over the past few decades, psychologist Phil Zimbardo has established himself as a kind of emissary to the dark side of human nature. Thousands of college students learn each year about his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he tapped half the participants to play "prisoners" and half to play "guards." The experiment was to run for two weeks, but after just a few days, the guards started acting so sadistically—ordering the prisoners to strip nude and clean toilets with their hands, among other things—that Zimbardo called the experiment off. The study ultimately became psychological shorthand for what can happen when normal people get social license to behave badly.
People were so fascinated with the experiment and its implications that Zimbardo spent years studying how certain situations can give rise to evil. He appeared as an expert witness in an Abu Ghraib guard's trial and wrote an acclaimed book called The Lucifer Effect. As he finished his book manuscript, though, he realized the strain of focusing on the worst in human nature was getting to him. He thought about Christina Maslach, the psychologist who would eventually become his wife, and how she had interceded during the Stanford Prison Experiment, telling him what he was doing to his subjects was terrible. He knew it had taken courage for Maslach to speak up, and he pondered why some people step forward to help others even at personal risk, while most are content to remain on the sidelines. Inspired, he decided to devote himself to studying and promoting heroism, and he founded his own nonprofit, the San Francisco-based Heroic Imagination Project. "We think heroism is trainable," he says. "We’re trying to make people aware that most heroes are ordinary people."
At first glance, Zimbardo’s career shift might seem like a dramatic turnabout, but it’s actually a very logical follow-on to his earlier work. If the Stanford Prison Experiment reveals how easy it is for people to behave poorly in certain situations, the Heroic Imagination Project asks how we as a society can do better—and aims to supply convincing answers. To that end, Zimbardo and his colleagues, including longtime educator Clint Wilkins, have devised a heroic education curriculum oriented toward helping high schoolers recognize negative situational influences and rise above them. That way, they can behave in ways consistent with their true values.
Zimbardo knows people will be talking about the Stanford Prison Experiment for a long time to come, but he hopes his efforts to beat back the dark side will prove just as memorable. “If there’s a challenging situation, heroes do something," he says. “We don’t want [heroism] to be limited to a rare, special breed. We say, ‘You have the potential to be a hero.’ That’s really powerful."
This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.