Learning from the Japanese Example — What Makes a Hero?

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As Japan faces fallout from this week’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunamis, hundreds of workers and soldiers are trying at great personal risk to cool damaged nuclear reactors and prevent further spread of radioactive chemicals. But what drives people to such self-sacrifice?

I spoke with pioneering social psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who has spent a lifetime trying to understand how group influences affect behavior and how peer pressure can lead to both heroism in battle and to the bizarre actions of suicide cult members.

He’s best known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which showed that ordinary people can rapidly turn into torturers when given power over vulnerable prisoners and group encouragement to use it abusively. More recently, he founded the Heroic Imagination Project to try to help people understand situational influences that create heroes and villains.

What’s the difference between altruism and heroism?

Altruism is ‘heroism lite.’ It doesn’t involve that much risk or cost, you give blood once in a while—it’s not like giving an organ to a stranger or standing up against unjust authority when you could lose your job.

What social pressures and influences are driving the Japanese response to this apocalyptic situation?

What’s unique about Japan is really a combination of a deep belief in Buddhism and Shinto religious rituals and what we call a collectivist culture where others are at least on par with the self, if not more important.

I’ll give you an example. Last time I was there, I was supposed to give a talk and we were running late. I was with the host’s wife. We walked to the corner and light turned red and there were no cars. I started crossing and I looked back and she and the others were still standing on the corner waiting. I said ‘It’s ok, there are no cars.’

She smiles and the light turns green and then she starts walking and says, ‘Now doesn’t that feel better.’ It has nothing to with ‘Is it safe to cross?’ A red light is a signal that everyone must obey. And it’s not blind obedience to authority, it’s devotion to a real communal culture where the focus is always on the other.

In restaurants, you never pour your own sake, you have to notice whose glass is empty and you serve them. It’s these little rituals [that have prepared them for this crisis] so that even if you have one bowl of rice, you share it with a stranger.

The wonderful thing about the Japanese is that they are presenting an example of the pro-social power of the group. The group as a whole is saying explicitly or implicitly, this is what we do: no looting, no horn honking even if you’re in a 12 mile traffic jam, no complaining. [CNN’s] Anderson Cooper said he’d never seen such calm in the face of such adversity.

What do we know so far about what makes people into heroes?

There’s not much research yet that identifies what qualities make someone into a hero. There are reactive heroes, like Wesley Autrey who jumps onto the subway track to save a guy. And then there are people who stand up to injustice like Erin Brockovich, obviously those are different but nobody has looked.

One of our focuses is that we’re starting to do research on various aspects of heroism. We’re trying to get funding for hero scholarship grants. The amazing thing is that I can give you a recipe for how to get good people to do evil deeds less in than a hour but I can’t tell you here’s 12 things that make a hero.

Why are we so affected by groups—for good or ill?

Groups are critical for our survival. We need families, friends, people to work with. Essentially our species survived by organizing into groups and most groups most of the time do good things. The problem is that for a variety of reasons, some go the other way often led by a charismatic leader who abuses his power. Once we feel part of a group, it’s easy to get seduced in that direction.

The feeling of being part of a group can make a soldier more courageous because he’s afraid to let his buddies down. It can make people go stay in nuclear power plants to save their fellow citizens. But that same loyalty can also drive cult-like behavior…

The power of the group is to give a sense of identity, a sense of meaning. Nobody joins a ‘cult,’ you join a family, an organization that’s going to change the world and everyone in it has a job that matters. Only at some point [does the leader start pushing people to do crazy things]. The People’s Temple [the group which committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana], Synanon, Scientology—almost always what happens is that the leader gets power mad and sucks everyone else along.

[These groups start with ideas like] we’re saving the world, we’re eliminating hunger or sexual excess or whatever. It doesn’t matter what the theme is, it’s always tying into what you see as a worthy cause and it’s not just this moral cause, you have a family [whom you’re working with on it].

And once you’ve been good group member, following the norms shifts, often initially imperceptibly. I worked with People’s Temple members who told me that had Jim Jones died, we would have kept going because we love each other and everyone was family.

What factors affect whether a group will behave positively or negatively?

[One important] factor is the inner dynamics of the group. [The group] has many norms or standards. If you follow this norm and feel that it is [what everyone does], then you’re accorded respect. If you violate the norm, in some cases, even just once, you’re out. When a group is really important to you, when it’s your main reference group, your identity is bound to it and if you get rejected by it, you feel that your life is over.

How do you help people learn to stand up to groups that are going in the wrong direction?

We’re building an exercise on how to be a positive deviant for a day. For example, you put a black dot on your forehead. People say ‘Why?’ It gets people crazy if you just say you felt like it. But if you can resist that one day, then maybe when a situation comes up where a group is doing nothing to help an injured person [or doing something harmful], you will be willing to be a positive deviant and help.

Why are we so blind to these social influences and influences of situations?

That’s my mission in life, to understand that. The problem is in part because we’re such an individualistic society. We focus on the actor. This is true in all of our institutions, law, medicine, economics, religion, all of psychiatry and most psychology. The individual is the actor, the sinner, the guilty party. We always look at personality traits or cognitive styles. But we’re looking at the actor alone on the stage with no audience, no other actors, no props, no costumes. That’s never the case, we’re always in a behavioral context, and with a different audience, other actors, new props and different costumes, you are a different person.

The main focus of what we’re doing now is to try to sow seeds of heroism everywhere and develop explicit programs [to cultivate people to act heroically]. When we know what work, we put it on the web to encourage and train people how to be heroes.

So how do you help people learn to be heroic?

The Heroic Imagination Project focuses on transforming egocentrism into sociocentrism. It’s we not me. [We start with small exercises] like make someone feel special every day this week. So we’ll say give a compliment and what means ultimately is that if I am [more focused on others in this way], I’m more likely to notice that you have a need, you have tear in eye, you’re lying by the side of road. Heroism is built in these small steps where you begin to focus on others.