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Dr. Z’s Lucifer Effect

December 13, 2008
Courtesy of Stanford University

Courtesy of Stanford University

If you remember Dr. Philip Zimbardo from any intro Psychology or Sociology class, he’s back. And his new book is called “The Lucifer Effect.” According to him it outlines and details the ways in which the human mind and consciousness can transform normal people into either monsters or heroes. His talk below (available in high-res mp4 here) talks about the monstrosities from the Abu Ghraib prison (how quickly we forget, eh?). The images are, in a word, horrifying. I had avoided actually looking at the pictures while in high school, and I’m pretty glad that I did. The fact that normal Americans — ones who everyday pledge their allegiance and devotion no less — can slide down the “slippery slope of evil” to actions like these is mind-boggling. I wouldn’t have been ready for it in high school anyway.

But it’s not all gloom and doom, as Dr. Z turns the discussion around on one question: “What inspires the heroic creativity?” In essence, what happens in those few people who act heroically that doesn’t happen in others? He mentions heroism as the antidote for evil, and it’s interesting how the balance seems to be in heroism’s favor. In the examples he mentions, it only takes one hero to counteract dozens of monsters. One hero.

Yet heroism is only one of the three possible paths to be taken by people in situations: 1) become a hostile monster, 2) passively sit by with inaction or 3) inspire the “heroic creativity.” How do you prepare to make the choice to take the third path? Dr. Z is now working on Hero Courses for children, to give them the tools to act when others don’t and to act against society as a whole. Because — and this is one of his vital ending points — heroism has two distinct qualities that makes it so difficult to do:

1) Heroism requires action when all others engage in inaction. Heroes are societal deviants in this sense.

2) Heroic acts are inherently socio-centric instead of ego-centric.

So there ya go. You wanna be an everyday hero? It sounds easy…but remember these things when a situation arises. And act.

Link to his talk on

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