Psychology Applied to Life

December 29, 2009

Psychology of Heroism: From Tackling the Terrorists and Thwarting Terror to… Sales?

Besides the always fun alliteration, I find myself drawn to bits and pieces of actual psychological research sandwiched into popular press and journalism. That said, I saw this interview with Phil Zimbardo on Newsweek‘s web site about the psychology of heroism and how it all relates to the courageous actions of Jasper Schuringa, the man who tackled the (alleged) terrorist who was attempting to set off a bomb and was literally on fire. How did this (more or less, seemingly) normal, ordinary guy end up jumping over other passengers and seats to tackle a man who was on fire – risking his own life and safety in the process and sustaining burns? What is it that turns some people into heroes who can ignore the obvious risks to themselves in order to protect others? Is it something that turns people into characters or are heroes born rather than made?

Phil Zimbardo is one of the most famous social psychologists there is, responsible for the Stanford Prison experiment, one of the most famous experiments of the last century. He’s also written a book about the psychology of evil called The Lucifer Effect. He’s appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report”; he’s a past president of the American Psychological Association; and in general, considered to be a pretty well-known psychologist who taught everyone in the field a lot about “human nature,” ethics, and social norms.

Unfortunately, the excerpts from the interview seem to be taken in order to make some generalizations and “big points” about what heroism really means. Namely, the excerpts seems to be used to show us that anyone and everyone can be a hero – it’s more about having the opportunity to be a hero rather than an innate (psychological or personality) trait. And then, of course, the natural plug for Zimbardo’s book. But there’s more here and in Zimbardo’s work – there’s a larger basis for his research and these general conclusions that warrant examination or at least a brief glance!

Zimbardo briefly mentions some principles and ideas that are the seeds that have grown into to the larger branches of research, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll only mention one here – the foot-in-the-door phenomenon (FITD). FITD holds that by asking individuals for a small request (i.e., will you talk to this underprivileged child on the phone for a few minutes?), these individuals will then be more likely to agree to larger requests (i.e., will you take this child to the zoo?). One of the the theories behind this is that people want to appear consistent (and not hypocritical) and by agreeing to the phone call, they are demonstrating their own charity and desire to help and they don’t want to appear contradictory by turning down the zoo trip.

This phenomenon is sometimes embraced by marketing gurus and salespeople – once you’re already paying for a small upgrade, maybe you’ll want a larger one and so on. Ideally it’s also used by those in the philanthropy “business,” but nonetheless, it’s a way that psychological findings have boosted the effectiveness of salespeople and marketing campaigns alike.

There are a number of interesting connections between this scholarly research and real life – from sales to thwarting terrorist attacks – but this is also a line of research that demonstrates both the incredible highs and terrifying lows of humans. Because just as anyone can become a hero, Zimbardo’s prison experiment demonstrated that anyone could become an abusive leader, brutalizing fellow humans as such behavior becomes a new sort of social norm. But just as we can see the glass as half-full or half-empty, we can choose to focus on the fact that anyone can become one of the most admirable and respectable members of society. We can all be heroes. We can all do bad things. The bottom line in Zimbardo’s research seems to say that the largest difference between the (alleged) terrorist and the man who tackled him is situational rather than a fundamental evil or goodness. And while we may not have a lot of control over the situations we are born into and placed in, we can all work to help others become heroes, just as Zimbardo pilots studies (via the Heroic Imagination Project)  to increase the likelihood that children will take heroic actions when faced with a situation and a choice to become one.

But then again, maybe I’m just influenced by the Christmas afterglow…

[Link to the original Newsweek article from 12.29.2009 by Mary Carmichael entitled “The Making of a Hero” here.]


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