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Ordinary Heroes and the Science of Good and Evil

Ordinary Heroes and the Science of Good and Evil“I did what anyone could do, no big deal to jump on the tracks.”
— Wesley Autrey, New York City’s “subway Superman”

On January 2nd, 2007, 50-year-old construction worker Wesley Autrey was waiting with his two young daughters for the train at the 137th Street and Broadway station in the Harlem section of Manhattan. Also waiting was 19-year-old film student Cameron Hollopeter, who began having a seizure.

Autrey borrowed a pen and used it to keep Hollopeter’s jaw open. Understandably wobbly post-seizure, Hollopeter fell onto the tracks. Autrey saw the lights of the oncoming train, gave a stranger his daughters to hold, and jumped down. He protected Hollopeter by lying on top of him. The height of their bodies on top of each other is 20-1/2 inches; the train’s clearance, 21. The engineer applied the brakes, yet all but two cars passed over them. Mr. Autrey had grease on his cap.

I propose we build a hero museum with Wesley Autrey’s cap as the first exhibit.

Mr. Autrey has been honored internationally, was highlighted for his heroism at the State of the Union address in 2007, and even appeared on The Tonight Show with David Letterman. We love our heroes. But what makes them do what they do?

Phil Zimbardo is working on it.

Zimbardo is best known for the Stanford Prison Study and more recently the Lucifer Effect. But in studying how people and situations and systems promote evil acts, Dr. Zimbardo has started to understand what makes people become heroes.

In the Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo describes a labyrinth of seven social processes in which evil takes place. He notes that these processes are likely to occur in new or unfamiliar situations.

  1. Mindlessly taking the first small step. Consider the Milgram experiment. It began with the subjects only giving a small 15-volt shock. Later the vast majority would go up to 450 volts. Evil starts out small.
  2. Dehumanizing others. In the Stanford Prison Study the randomly assigned prisoners were arrested at their homes and assigned numbers to dehumanize them. The well-known result was that the experiment went out of control. But a quote from Dennis Burning of Charlie Company concerning the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam more potently illustrates the impact of dehumanization: “I would say that most people in our company didn’t consider the Vietnamese human.” In this massacre more than 340 unarmed civilians, women and children included, were killed by members of the U.S. Army’s C-company.
  3. Deindividuation of self. The uniforms of the military make the acts more anonymous and promote group or mob mentality. The violent power of anonymity is inherent in the work of anthropologist John Watson, who studied 23 cultures and found that if they don’t change their appearance only one out of eight kills, tortures or mutilates, but if they do wear a uniform, a mask, or paint themselves 90 percent kill, torture, and mutilate.When we are anonymous we are more violent.
  4. Diffusion of personal responsibility. Following the New York City murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, witnesses were said to have seen the slaying, but did nothing to stop the attack. While the initial number and situation of the witnesses has recently come into question, social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latané began research on what has been called the bystander effect. This line of research demonstrates that the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely an individual is to help a victim. If others don’t do something, we won’t either.
  5. Blind obedience to authority. Adolf Eichmann defended his role in the Holocaust by saying he was just following Hitler’s orders. He did what he was told to do. But obedience isn’t only about hurting others. In 1978 over 900 people committed suicide or were murdered by family and friends in a Guyana jungle because they were blindly obedient to their pastor, the Rev. Jim Jones, head of the People’s Temple. They gave up their lives because they were told to.
  6. Uncritical conformity to group norms. The notorious Manson family, responsible for the Tate LaBianca murders in 1969, was a prime example of both blind obedience and conformity to group norms. The group norm was to do what Manson said, including murder, without question. During Manson’s trial, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi asked the state’s star witness what it was like to be part of the Manson Family:

    “Did you ever see or observe any members of the Family refuse to do anything that Manson told him or her to do?”

    “No, nobody did. We always wanted to do anything and everything for him.”

    This was the norm. How far would it go? Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a Manson Family member who later attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford, wrote: “What if I said (like everybody else) ‘Charlie made me do it?'”

    The torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib is a more recent example. The soldiers’ dehumanization of the prisoners in their charge was so common that they took more than 1,000 cell phone photos. This practice wasn’t challenged for months.

  7. Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference. Geraldo Rivera, then a reporter for Channel 7 News, in 1972 confronted Dr. Jack Hammond about the conditions inside Willowbrook State School. Hammond, who had led the school since 1965, responded that “the conditions here are no better or worse than any other facility for the mentally retarded in the state.”His indifference and inaction during the time he had been running the institution were embedded in his statement. Abuse and mistreatment of patients had gone on for nearly seven years under Dr. Hammond’s direction. The atrocities at Willowbrook — at the time the largest institution in the country for housing the intellectually impaired — led to a landmark lawsuit. The resulting Willowbrook Consent Decree, promulgated in 1975, marks the turning point in the delivery of services for people with intellectual disabilities.

So evil, it seems, has a plan, but what of heroism?

Ordinary Heroes and the Science of Good and Evil

Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Honored by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers on the issue of depression Dr. Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP is a core faculty member at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University, and holds a Ph.D. in psychology, MFA in writing, and Master of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

He authors the daily column, Ask the Therapist, for, and developed the Dare to be Happy experiential workshops for Kripalu.   His award-winning memoir, American Snake Pit was released in 2018, and his next book, Learned Hopefulness, The Power of Positivity To Overcome Depressionis hailed as: “…the perfect recipe for fulfillment, joy, peace, and expansion of awareness.”  by Deepak Chopra, MD: Author of Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential.

Learn more about Dr. Dan at his website.

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APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2018). Ordinary Heroes and the Science of Good and Evil. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 13 Jul 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.