Choose to be a Hero – The Heroic Imagination Project

What makes an ordinary person choose to be a hero? After decades of studying the nature of evil, Dr. Phil Zimbardo has turned his attention to what makes us good: “I have given up dining in Hell”, he announced at a 2014 talk in Warsaw.

The eminent psychologist ran the seminal Stanford Prison Experiment, and has authored many books, including The Lucifer Effect: How good people turn evil. Since 2010, Dr Zimbardo has focused on the Heroic Imagination Project, which shows us all how we can become heroes.

“Heroism is in the mind”, Dr. Zimbardo reminds us: the act of making a positive difference in our world starts by thinking like a hero.

So how can one choose to be a hero? According to Dr. Zimbardo, everyday heroism involves awareness to situations: that is, a sensitivity not only to the people around you, but also an awareness of the social pressures they are trying to deal with. Who is in charge? Why are they in charge? What is everyone doing, and why? What assumptions have you made about what is expected of you and others? And, most importantly, is the crowd’s action right, according to your own standards?

Although it’s always hard to stand up and say, “This is wrong”, this intelligent disobedience is a vital skill which anyone can cultivate. We have to decide if the person giving the orders has really earned their authority, and we have to learn how to assert our disagreement if they have not. In a recent podcast, Dr. Zimbardo explains how his Heroic Imagination Project helps us to have the courage of our convictions and stand up for what is right.

“Beware of authorities wearing false lab-coats”, he warns with a dry chuckle, recalling how easily his colleague Stanley Milgram convinced test subjects to administer electric shocks to complete strangers, simply because someone in a lab-coat with a clipboard told them to.

While many people know that the Stanford Prison Experiment quickly spiralled into abuse, not everyone knows the act of heroism which led to the experiment being shut down after only six days: Christina Maslach, a social psychologist who later wed Zimbardo, watched as the man she loved changed – and the uncharacteristically callous way he behaved towards the experiment’s subjects – and she was understandably shocked. Even though it meant risking their relationship, she shook him up enough that he pulled the plug on the experiment half-way through.


Maslach’s brave stand not only halted the suffering of a dozen college students, it also showed Zimbardo how to act in the face of authority gone awry. Many religions teach us to love our neighbor, but the eminent psychologist reminds us that in this world of global communication, everyone is now our neighbor, and it is up to all of us to step up and speak out when we see injustice. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

“Most heroes are ordinary people,” as Dr Zimbardo says. The Heroic Imagination Project seeks to make us all “heroes in waiting” providing a “hero resource kit”.

If each of us would choose to be a hero, predators would be held accountable for their actions, corruption would lose its grip on nations, and undue influence would lose its foothold in our society. Cults and corrosive relationships cannot survive in a world where we all accept responsibility for our neighbors.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read any of Dr. Zimbardo’s books? Do you have a story about choosing to be a hero that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

This article was compiled by the Open Minds Editorial Staff.

One Comment

  1. Robert Beliveau April 2, 2018 at 3:08 am - Reply

    Hey Dr. Zimbago,
    NICE, Zuperman t-shirt…
    You remind me of the American war hero, ZAMPERINI from the movie Forgotten.

    Coincidentally, my Twitter name is Superman4usa. I dont tweet too much although l use to enjoy whistling. LOL

    I created to encourage a digital-educational-paradigm-switch, from old school mindset created within public school setting. Students are bored without active learning techniques being implemented to include visual and auditory processing beyond the bound pages of yesterday. Turbo Tax but no, Turbo-Teach…?
    In other related super hero news…I’ve also designed nose and face protection in a new lightweight, breathable and handwashable high-tech composite material to provide TOTAL SUNBLOCK…or solar protection for super heroes with skin cancer and/or a message of intelligence to help us ALL save our planet from being taken over by the Xerox Robots that can’t think outside the box by nature of design leading to our imprisoned demise…
    Cambridge Analytics, Cambridge University, Cambridge Publishing…it seems that ever since this bridge came from England we’re always in need of a hero to point out the origin of our COLONIAL debt is created by selective information and selective enforcement because of DUMBOCRACY and FREEDUMB caused by GREEDY MEDIA, UNCLE TOMS and SLAVE OWNERS or book publishers that exploit the ignorant…as a right of capitalism…that are offered endless subsidiaries: tax dollars paid to Warren Buffet for owning property in low rent and low income housing areas and/or building of football stadiums for wealthy team owners.
    Anyways, quality public education and the middle class employment of teachers is at the corner stone of our American democracy which is at stake…Focusing upon the enemy is important…Caligula must be stopped from sucking American’ dreams from our necks while we sleep in class…Evangelistic mindset is passing the basket to raise money for our collective casket…green and yellow baskets filled with our tax dollars and gold fillings from the victims of public school teachers and students because the DNC and Cambridge Analytics colluded to create the illusion of democracy and zero accountability for their pumping and dumping the markets…AMD $2 to $14…down to $10…Where will the merrigoround stop…to invite ZUCKERBERG back into FACE his collusion in selling his shares before he collapsed the market…Lock Him Up….Lock Her Up…

    Nosetradamus is my name…
    Nosevertising is my game…

    Cambridge Analytics and ZUCKERBERG both sold their shares before Stormy Daniels showed up…So, when will they buy back in…or where’s the bottom…BTW CYA..
    Buy Silver and gold…jubilee.

    Beware ppl are hunting assets…and dreams.

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