An Overview of the April 2016 Hero Round Table Weekend
At Radboud University in Nijmegen, NL. With Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Matt Landon and Nathalie van Gerrevink

Have you ever thought of yourself as a hero? I sure didn’t, at least not at first. But after attending a Heroic Round Table Weekend conference sponsored by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, I learned that many ex-members of cult-like groups are truly heroes!

Some were born and raised in high-control groups, while others spent years of their lives being unduly influenced. They were psychologically and emotionally manipulated constantly in an effort to get them to submit, adapt and suppress their personal feelings and needs. All this was done for the benefit of a pseudo-religious group or a narcissistic leader.

How did they find the hero-like strength to stand up for themselves? For most of them, it was extremely difficult to begin asking critical questions, knowing the outcome. It took courage to stop submitting to unjust rules and group convictions, as it would mean losing contact with family and close friends, being ostracized, called an apostate or traitor, or harassed and stalked for many years after leaving.

Why do people leave abusive relationships and groups?  At some point, they can no longer keep silent. They have to act. Something pushes them over the edge to stop adapting to no longer hide from their deepest fears. This awakens the hero in them. Unfortunately, even after they leave, it takes time to become fully aware of the huge impact that non-stop social coercion had on their decision-making skills.

For me personally, it took several years of psychological education to grasp what had happened, without punishing myself too harshly for what I did or did not do.

While I am still recovering from my cult-like experience, it is nice to report about a worldwide project to help educate the general public about the pervasive use of influence, both good and bad. That we are way more influenced by situations and social pressure than we realize. In fact, the power of our free will is overestimated, and not just in cult-like groups and manipulative relationships.

The focus on this massive educational project “The Heroic Learning Project” will be to help people use their knowledge and brains to act as heroes.

To excite and inform you about what social psychologists like Dr. Philip Zimbardo hope to accomplish with this project, I took the following notes and pictures while attending the April 2016 Heroic Round Table Weekend conference.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo is a social psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, California, US. He is internationally known for his research on the dark side of humanity: “How does one turn evil?” As a scientific researcher, he directed the Stanford Prison experiment in 1971. It turned out to be an experiment that shocked many and had similarities with what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. The video where the similarities are highlighted can be found here.

The film, by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, about the experiment and based on Zimbardo’s 2008 book The Lucifer Effect, was made in cooperation with Zimbardo and his wife Christina Maslach. It was released in the US in 2015 and can be found here.

Other books written by Dr. Philip Zimbardo are: Shyness: What it is. What to do about it (1977) and The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time that will Change your Life

Zimbardo had an epiphany in 2007 while writing The Lucifer Effect. It happened after he wrote chapter 15, when he suddenly realized that his life work had been about negative side of the human condition. So in chapter 16, he decided to change direction and focus on heroes.

Dr. Zimbardo started his Heroic Imagination Project in 2010. The TED Talk about this new project can be viewed here.

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Dr. Zimbardo being interviewed by Professor Daniel Wigboldus of the Radboud University
1400 listeners, most of them students of the Radboud University, were present.

A few highlights of Dr. Zimbardo’s lecture:

Friday evening, April 1st 2016, in Nijmegen, The Netherlands:

The conference weekend kicked off with the lecture of Dr. Z., as he calls himself, about everyday heroes.  Dr. Zimbardo started with the song “Change your evil ways” by Carlos Santana and invited us all to dance together. By giving this good example, he was able to get us all going!

After this energetic start, he introduced himself and described how he grew up in poverty, in the Bronx, NY. From the time he was a little boy, he often asked himself why some people turned into evil people and others didn’t. They were people he knew as kids and although they did awful, cruel things, he knew they were not evil-hearted persons. What influenced them to act evil? What influence had, for example, their poor circumstances to do with it?

He talked about different kinds of evil, such as: Systemic Evil, Genocide, Poverty, Slave labor, Sex trafficking and Climate Change Disaster – and indifference.

An individual evil person he calls “a bad apple”.
If it is situational evil it’s “a bad barrel” (of apples).

Systemic evil contains “bad barrel makers”.

To do research about the question: “what will happen if good people are put into bad situations?”, he directed the Stanford Prison Experiment, starting August 14th, 1971.

For the experiment 24 mostly normal, healthy, young men were randomly assigned as either a prison guard or a prisoner. Everybody knew it was an experiment and were told they could leave if they insisted.

Soon it became clear the situation they were put in had an enormous impact on each person’s behaviour. Normal, healthy young men started to behave both abusively and cruelly (to the prison guards) or rebelliously at first and after a few days overly submissive and docile. Some of them were completely losing grip on reality. The experiment was supposed to last for 14 days, but was stopped within 6 days.

On the other hand there is the question: What makes ordinary people do heroic deeds?
It seems to be that courage, an awareness of the future, mindfulness, compassion, empathy and morality are important, but we don’t know for sure, because there’s very little research done on heroism. We need additional resources and funds to do much more research on what makes people heroes and do good, in spite of any pressure to do bad things. In the end we all want people who do, who act, not people who only feel empathy.

What makes a person into a Hitler or a Gandhi? The decision to act heroically is a choice that many of us will be called upon at some point in time. Ordinary people, not the Superman-type of hero, whose actions in challenging situations are extraordinary.

What will and can you do? How can we use our knowledge, our brain, to act as a hero?

Dr. Zimbardo’s Ten Steps to Become an Everyday Hero:

1. Be self aware (combined with situational sensitivity – be rooted in who you are).
2. Be modest (In self-estimation. Realize we are all vulnerable).
3. Suppress yourself in service of society (Be able to laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself so seriously).
4. Self-honesty (Be accountable to yourself. Self Reflective. Don’t fake it, but face it. It’s time to stop pretending).
5. Mindfulness (and awareness. Be attuned to the moment, prepare to disengage and think critically).
6. Question Information (Separate messenger from message in your mind. Realize that people do manipulate to serve their own agendas).
7. Intuition (develop discrepancy detectors to tune into violations of boundaries and your expectations)
8. Confront calmly (Press the Pause button! Allow the other to explain their point of view before you react. Think about what you can do to increase understanding).
9. Discriminate ideologies (Be aware of following orders blindly. Always ask questions).
10. Don’t follow blindly “Start thinking about yourself as a hero. Start imagining it.”

After these 10 steps, Dr. Zimbardo talked about his educational modules. The target group is kids, because they will shape our future. We have to help them as best as we can. The lessons address subjects such as: Growth Mindset, Situational Blindness, The Bystander Effect, Conformity/Peer pressure, Adaptive Attribution and Stereotype Threats, Prejudice and Intergroup Conflict. More subjects will be addressed in the future. One of these subjects will be about cult behaviour and terrorist groups.

“A hero is sociocentric, not egocentric. Every day you are a hero in training! Keep it small. Get used to being different, observant. Give someone a compliment, make someone feel special. It is in the little things.”

He also talked about different types of heroes: There are impulsive, reflective/proactive, and life-long heroes.

The impulsive hero acts without reflecting first. He acts within a split second, not thinking of any consequences or threats, such as life-saver of a drowning person. He jumps in.

The reflective/proactive hero acts after reflecting. He acts after careful consideration, thinking about possible outcomes and impact on oneself and others. For example: whistle-blowers.

And there are life-long heroes. For instance: Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and Gandhi.

The audience was given the opportunity to ask some questions and one of the students asked him about free will: “Since you, Dr. Zimbardo obviously used your free will to stop the experiment, why did you say free will is an illusion?” Dr. Zimbardo answered: “It is not that we never act out of free will. The thing is…. it is wrong if we underestimate the pressure the situation or the people we are under have on us. We are way more influenced by situations and pressure then many like to believe. The power of our free will is often overestimated.”

And finally he gave the 1400 listeners a few tips: “Practice being a positive deviant for a day. For instance: draw a square on your forehead. Be different and experience how it feels. And become productive heroes, without putting yourself in real danger. Sometimes you have to resist the group! Be ready when that moment comes.”

After the lecture there was a signing-session and Meet & Greet. There was a long line of students, teachers and others waiting for a signature and short conversation with Dr. Z.

The next day, Saturday April 2nd, The Hero Round table conference (organized by Matt Landon) started.

The Hero Roundtable was in the NL for the very first time.

A small audience of 80-100 people listened to the talks. During the conference it became clearer to me how much of an impact these personal hero-stories have and how contagious heroic deeds can be. The whole concept of becoming the next everyday Hero is undoubtedly an inspiring one. Dr. Z.’s research, described in detail in his book “The Lucifer Effect” (about how good people can turn evil), showed that humans are strongly influenced by bad situations and (group) pressure. It would be equally interesting to see what research can show about “The Heroic Effect” on people if they are influenced by positive situations and role models.How can we, ordinary people, see ourselves as everyday heroes? How to become intelligent and proactive heroes, without putting ourselves in real danger? These questions were about to be answered during this conference.

The short, 12 minute-talks were inspiring. The subjects were diverse: Johnny Kerkhof (NL) talked about how much good food was thrown away because it wasn’t up to standards for the supermarkets or restaurants and how heroic people took initiative to speak up and save the “waste-food” to make good use of it.

Dan Edwards (UK) of Parkour Generations reminded us that heroes are not born, but made. There are two pillars of heroism: Altruism and Attributes. He quotes Maya Angelou’s words: “I think a hero is any person’s real intent on making this a better place for all people”.

Rule 1: Explore and Discover; Rule 2: Challenge Yourself; Rule 3: Adapt positively.

Hanne Viken gave a talk about the meaning of helping refugees. People who travel to the actual place where the refugees arrive and heroically save lives and provide food, shelter and loving kindness;

Johan Karremans (NL) shared his research on the impact relationships have on people. We need relationships to live longer. What influence does our response to injustice or mistreatment have, on ourselves and others? He shared information about The Forgiveness Project and The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.

Suzanne Bernier (C) explained about the nonprofit foundation Stars of Hope, which makes wooden stars with messages of hope and support. They also collect money for projects to help disaster-affected communities. A few of her remarks: You don’t need a badge to be a hero! Change how you perceive disaster: Look for the helpers in the disaster. Helpers and heroes shine brighter in darkness. Instead of saying ‘I hope they’ll do something about that’ – DO IT . After the conference she would go to Brussels, Belgium, to give her support to the victims and the families of the bombing at Zaventum Airport.

One of the speakers was Christina Maslach, emeritus Professor of Psychology of the University of California, Berkeley, US, and wife of Dr. Philip Zimbardo. She talked about her expertise in the area of “Burn-out”, in relation to activism.

After describing burn-out symptoms, such as exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness, she talked about the importance of finding a fit between ourselves and our work. She advised to watch out for socially toxic environments, colleagues and supervisors that take a toll on our emotional state and energy levels. And tips how to prevent burn-out, such as “Sustain passion through the positives of process; Find balance between personal needs and activists goals”. She closed her talk with the loving remarks: “Don’t forget to live! Be responsible!”

Sunday, April 3rd, was the day of the workshops. There were many workshops to choose from, all close and personal. Dr. Zimbardo directed himself especially to the students, inspiring them to start their own research or project about one of the aspects of being/becoming Heroes. He also showed certain aspects of the education program he is working on. One of them, The Growth Mindset, he used as an example.

Here is a link to a speech by Dr. Zimbardo about the importance of being Heroes.

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Photo: Dr. Z. during the workshop, explaining how his educational models can be used

The Heroic Imagination Project is such a powerful concept and so inspiring to all ages. Talking and teaching about the subject “How to stand up to do the right thing and find the strength to be the Hero” can be, as I see it, even more powerful in combination with material of the book “Intelligent Disobedience of Ira Chaleff (with a lot of heroic stories to inspire) and Combating Cult Mind Control” of Steven Hassan (insights to help us protect ourselves against undue influence). Translating all these powerful messages into practical education programs is certainly worthwhile work.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about being heroic that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!