If outside influences can make people act badly, can they also be used to help people do good?

In "Too Hard for Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don't think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun, or they might be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard for Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.

The scientist: Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University.

The idea: Zimbardo is likely best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, which revealed how even good people can do evil, shedding light on how the subtle but powerful influences of a situation can radically alter individual behavior. The study randomly assigned two dozen normal, healthy young men as either "prisoners" or "guards" in a mock jail in a basement in Stanford University in 1971 to investigate the psychology of prison life. The researchers discovered the volunteers quickly began acting out their roles, with the guards becoming sadistic in only a few days, findings recently detailed in Zimbardo's book, "The Lucifer Effect."

After the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo began exploring ways to create heroes instead of villains. "My idea is sowing the earth with millions of everyday heroes trained to act wisely and well when the opportunity presents itself," he says.

The problem: The greatest challenge that Zimbardo thinks his idea of creating heroes en masse faces is how "people think heroes are born, not made; that they can't be heroes," he says. "The fact is that most heroes are ordinary people. It's the heroic act that is extraordinary."

As an example, Zimbardo pointed out New York construction worker Wesley Autrey, who jumped onto subway tracks and threw himself over a seizure victim, restraining him while a train hurtled an inch above their heads in 2007. "We want to change the mentality of people away from the belief that they're not the kind who do heroic deeds to one where they think everyone has the potential to be heroic," he says. "Mentality plus opportunity ideally equals heroic action."

The solution? Zimbardo and his colleagues have created the Heroic Imagination Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to advancing everyday heroism. By heroism, they do not simply mean altruism. "Heroism as we define it means taking action on the behalf of others for a moral cause, aware of possible risks and costs and without expectation of gain," he clarifies.

Their program has four sections. "First, we want to fortify people against the dark side, to be aware of the standard tactics used by perpetrators of evil, how they seduce good people to doing bad things," Zimbardo says. "Using video clips, we'll show how this happens — bystander inaction, diffusion of responsibility, the power of the group, obedience to authority and the like."

"Once you learn these lessons, we then want to inspire you to the bright side," he continues. "We want to give examples of how people like you have done heroic things to inspire your heroic imagination, and then train you to be a wise and effective hero. We want you to think big and start small, giving tips on what to do each day on this journey. We're saying, 'Here's how to be an agent of change, step by step by step.'"

"For instance, heroes are sociocentric — they come to others in need, make other people feel central — so a challenge each day might be to make people feel special, give them a compliment," he explains. "It's not heroic, but it's focusing on the other, and once you get used to it, you can develop other heroic habits. Also, heroes are always deviants — in most group situations, the group does nothing, so heroes have to learn how to break away from the pull of a group, be positive deviants, dare to be different."

"We want people to think of themselves as heroes-in-training, and make a public commitment to take on the hero challenge, since research shows that making public commitments increases the chances of intentions carried into action," Zimbardo says. "We also want to invite people to sign up with one or two friends, make it a social rather than a private event, since most heroes are effective in networks. We're arguing that we can create a network of heroes, using the power of the Web."

In the second part of the program, "we're developing corporate initiatives, thinking about how to create cultures of integrity," Zimbardo says. They are in talks with companies such as Google, he notes. "Can you imagine avoiding disasters such as the Deepwater oil spill if we had people in the right places willing to speak up and act?" In the third, they will engage the public, sending and receiving information through their Web site and promoting public activities, such as Eco-Heroes, a program where young people work with elders to save their environment; Health-Heroes, where one helps family members exercise, quit smoking, eat responsibly, take medications and the like; and the Heroic Disability Initiative, which aims to provide the handicapped and disabled with examples of people like them who performed heroic deeds, as well as ways to take part in community programs.

In the last part of the program, "we're research-centered," Zimbardo says. "We are measuring changes in attitude, beliefs, values and critical behavior with an education program in four different high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, from inner-city schools in Oakland to more privileged ones in Palo Alto, trying out these strategies, seeing what works, what doesn't. What does work we'll put on our Web site. We also want to start a research scholar award program for graduate students to do research on heroism. It's amazing that there's been research on evil for years, but almost no research on heroism, and we want to do more of that."

His group is not alone — scientists at the University of British Columbia recently published a study on heroism, finding that people who received awards for one-time acts of moral bravery, such as saving a stranger from a burning house, indeed had personalities no different from ordinary people. On the other hand, those who had demonstrated heroism over years scored unusually caring or thoughtful. "These are the kinds of behaviors we hope to help train," Zimbardo notes.

Related article at Scientific American: Walking the Line Between Good and Evil: The Common Thread of Heroes and Villains


If you have a scientist you would like to recommend I question, or you are a scientist with an idea you think might be too hard for science, email me at toohardforscience@gmail.com

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About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.