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What makes some people act heroically and empathetic toward others?

What is it that finally makes a gang member renounce his violent ways? Or a former Hamas extremist turn to reconciliation instead of suicide bombs? The answers are remarkably similar, based on a recent study from researchers at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

One of the study’s authors, Philip Zimbardo, is the psychologist behind the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college students acting as prison guards quickly turned shockingly sadistic toward their fellow students. Though much attention has been paid to the question of what makes good people turn bad, 30 percent of the prison guard subjects actually resisted inflicting harm, exhibiting what Zimbardo would come to term “ordinary heroism.”

In this more recent research, Zimbardo and co-author Rony Berger, an expert in the psychology of dealing with terrorism at Tel Aviv University, identify the phenomenon outside of the lab: in two settings of extraordinary violence—gangland urban America and the Middle East of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—what makes some people act heroically and empathically toward others?

Like many of their peers, study subjects had rough early lives and experienced deep personal tragedy. But researchers found that these ex-gang members and extremists—a.k.a. "transformers"— tended to be securely attached to parents or other inspiring role models in childhood. Even more importantly, they had personal, meaningful encounters with the "other side."

One study participant was an Israeli Defense Forces lawyer assigned to prosecute a young Palestinian woman who had planned a suicide mission in Israel; the two women eventually became very close. As the lawyer put it:

What separated us was the fact that she lived under occupation and was determined to serve her country by making this incredible sacrifice, while I was serving my own country by devoting my career in the army. In fact, under different circumstances, we could have been good friends.

The subjects also found ways to achieve their goals with new reference groups—for example, anti-gang, peace, or community organizations—that were alternatives to the militant groups with which they formerly identified. Another participant said:

I had the pastor of my church go to speak on my behalf. I had gotten a sponsor through AA, this guy that I’m really close to who’s like a father to me and someone, like I said, I would not have associated with in my past, a white supremacist guy, looking like big biker, huge white guy.

The researchers’ interest in "deeper understandings of heroic young men and women in the Middle East and the urban ghettos of the United States" is more than just academic. Based on their findings, the authors designed an anti-radicalization program specifically to help young people in inner city and war zones reduce stress symptoms, develop resilience, and be more tolerant. The 16-step intervention program explores coping mechanisms for stress and fear, encourages meditating and seeking social support, and teaches skills in body and emotional awareness, anger management, personal grief rituals, and conflict resolution. They tested the intervention program on Jewish and Arab students exposed to war: the program was effective in reducing post-traumatic stress, anxiety, discrimination, hostility, and stereotyping of the other.

"The transformation from a life of violence to a life of compassion is the most striking part of the study, because it shows the possibility for change, even for people in street gangs and extremist groups," says Emma Seppala, associate director of CCARE. "It actually happens. It’s not just theory. And it’s really interesting to see that other people have something to do with that. In the right kind of environment, trauma can actually lead to empathy and a life of purpose."

This research, Seppala adds, is critical to what CCARE does. Funded in part by the Dalai Lama, the center supports rigorous science exploring what makes people show kindness, selflessness, and empathy toward each other—qualities that are, after all, the underpinnings of our survival as a species. "The truth is, our first instinct is to help: infants as young as 18 months are pro-social, it’s part of our initial makeup," she says. "The mind can be trained to be compassionate—there are multiple ways to do that, and we’re dedicated to finding those ways."

Top image: SVLuma /Shutterstock

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