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The Psychology of Evil & Heroism

Date: 09-02-13
Host: George Noory
Guests: Philip Zimbardo, Elizabeth Svoboda, Richard Dolan

In the middle two hours, renowned social psychologist and creator of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, discussed this landmark study which saw ordinary college students transformed into either sadistic guards or emotionally broken prisoners. He explained that the goal of the experiment was to understand how "social situational context" plays a profound and underestimated role in influencing behavior. To that end, he noted that the students who played guards in the study were largely anti-war activists that, at first, didn't even want to adopt the authoritarian role. However, he observed, upon donning their uniform and being surrounded by fellow 'guards,' they quickly began demonstrating their power in "creatively evil ways," which led him to end the study early.

Regarding his latest research, which looks at the psychology of heroism, Zimbardo defined a hero as "someone who takes action on behalf of someone in need or defends a moral cause." He stressed that heroism differs from altruism because it has the potential for "high cost or risk." It is this steep price which prevents many people from becoming heroes, but Zimbardo suggested that there are smaller steps which can bring out the "inner hero" in anyone. For example, he said that heroes are "sociocentric," noticing other people in need and offering help. Therefore, a potential hero does not necessarily need to save someone from danger, but can simply be observant and commit a small act of kindness, such as a offering compliment. According to Zimbardo, this tactic changes the dynamics of a social situation into a more positive environment, because the recipient feels "special and respected."

In the final hour of the program, science journalist, Elizabeth Svoboda, continued the discussion of heroism and how researchers are now applying the lens of science to study it for the first time. According to case studies on heroes, she said, they often have "training that is appropriate to the situation," such as a skydiving instructor who used his years of experience to find a way to save his tandem partner when both of their parachutes failed. On a biological level, Svoboda indicated that "in some ways, our brains might actually be wired for a certain kind of selflessness." She cited a neurological study which showed pleasure centers in the brain lighting up when people decided to donate to charity. While she echoed Zimbardo's thoughts on altruism versus heroism, Svoboda argued that a "really dedicated altruist" who commits their life to a specific cause qualifies them as a hero.

Behind Horror Films

In the first hour, author Richard Dolan talked about his role in the new television special Real Fear TV, which airs on the cable channel Chiller this Friday at 9 PM. While he is primarily known for his work studying UFOs, Dolan was asked to join the cast of the program after appearing as a historian in the first edition of the special. The aim of Real Fear TV, he said, is to find out the true story behind iconic horror films, such as Blair Witch Project and Fire in the Sky. Regarding the latter film, he detailed how Travis Walton appears on the show and reveals new insights about the facts and fiction surrounding the movie based on his experience. Dolan also reflected on spending the night at the Pennhurst Asylum, which was portrayed in the third Nightmare on Elm Street.

Related Articles

LADEE Set to Launch

LADEE Set to Launch

NASA's newest probe, dubbed the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), will launch later this week. The craft is expected to take 30 days to reach the moon and will spend the next 100 days orbiting it and collecting data on both the atmosphere and dust composition found there. Scientists hope that the project will shed light on other celestial locations, such as Mercury, where atmosphere samples have been obtained, but surface research yet to be performed. More on the story at Space.com.

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