Monday, November 17, 2008

The pursuit of heroism?

Tonight, Andrew Denton’s TV interview show, Enough Rope featured a famous social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo.

I’d never heard of him before, but he was famous in the 70s for doing an experiment to discover whether “good people” would turn bad, if they were put particularly bad circumstances.
Here’s a description of the experiment from a website called “Edge“:


In the summer of 1971, Philip Zimbardo and his team of reseachers at Stanford University designed and conducted a landmark psychology experiment that would forever change our understanding of human behavior.


24 volunteer college students were randomly assigned to roles of prisoners or guards in a mock prison located in the basement of the psychology building at the
university.


The results were shocking. Within days, the “guards” turned authoritarian and sadistic while the “prisoners” became passive and started to show signs of severe depression. What was supposed to be a 2 week experiment had to be shut down after only six days.

I’m both fascinated, and shocked by the study. Shocked that it got through the ethics department (it certainly wouldn’t these days), and shocked by the results.

But at the same time, I’m not completely shocked. Zimbardo was hoping to discover the essence of human nature, and I guess in some ways I should’ve known the result of the experiment before it was revealed. Humanity is flawed, and while we are capable of many great things, we are also capable of evil.

I don’t use that word lightly - evil. You may well ask, “what is evil?” And I’m not entirely sure I can define it, but I know that humans are capable of it. And this is one of the basic understandings of the christian worldview. Humanity has rejected God, rejected his ways and tried to live by our own standards. This hasn’t worked for us, and we consistently stuff up - and sometimes, it is evil.

The great hope of the christian worldview, however, is that we have an example of someone who is utterly selfless. Selfishness is the embodiment of evil, so selflessness the reversal of evil. Jesus, in his death on our behalf, defeated evil, in the ultimate act of selflessness - taking the wrath of God towards us, upon himself.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me about Zimbardo, is the twist that his work has taken. He is now a promoter of ‘heroism’, in other words, fostering selflessness among humankind. He believes that while we are capable of evil, we are also capable of heroism.

And Denton, in his interview with Zimbardo asked him about his latest campaign. I googled it, and found some more material on the Edge website.

The thing Zimbardo said which struck me most was his plan to inspire people towards socio-centrism rather than ego-centrism’. Basically, looking to put others first. This is not a new thought - it is the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but it’s fascinating hearing it in another paradigm - that is the social scieneces.

When I think about what he’s saying, and trying to promote, I can’t help but think of Jesus, and his example to us. I also think of christians who fearlessly helped jews during the holocaust. At the same time, I think of my own failure to protect the vulnerable, and of the many christians like me who drop the ball. For a people who have claimed the grace of God, I think it’s sad and disappointing that we don’t do as well as we could at defending the helpless.

I’m trying to think of ways of doing this in my sphere of existence. I've started helping out at a local drop-in centre, but it feels like a drop in the ocean. Sometimes the challenge just seems so vast. When I think globally, it challenges frighten me - injustice and poverty is everywhere.
I'm challenged to think am I just a passive bystander? As a Christian I have a responsibility to stand up for these people, to demand justice, but what do I do?

I'm going to keep thinking about this stuff, and looking and praying for opportunities. If anyone has any practical ways of putting these thoughts into practice, please comment.

3 comments:

Kim said...

Coming from watching that interview I had feelings of being terrified that we all have the capability of releasing such hurt or horror just by being put into a situation.

It may just be a drop in the ocean but you are definitely helping other people's lives already. People that tackle the bigger problems need smaller scale people help execute their solutions.

sophg said...

Yeah, i was pretty shaken by it too.

How are you going with all those storms??

Kim said...

Most of the damage that you see on TV is limited to a handful of suburbs, a few kilometres away from where I am. On the afternoon of the storm you could see an absolute wall of black and green clouds approaching, but for our household it didn't feel like the biggest storm in 15 years. We didn't have any damage done to our place. I guess we were really lucky to miss the violent part of the storm.

I just posted a quick blog on this blogspot, I'm not sure if I'll stick to blogging again, but I guess there's a start! :P