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?

In framing the Lucifer Effect Zimbardo points to three ways to help understand what makes a bad apple: dispositional, situational and systemic.

Dispositional understanding is hardwired into each individual. What makes us bad is part of who we are.

Situational understanding means, essentially, that an apple goes bad in a bad barrel. So if someone is doing something evil, they require a change of situation.

Systemic understanding is required in order to change the situation. It starts with the individual, but then looks at where the true power for change resides. Is it in the individual, their situation, or the legal, political, and economic systems?

Understanding heroism is a bit different. We have superheroes with supernatural abilities as the icons of our culture: The athletes, the movie stars, and the statesmen. But this sends the wrong message, says Zimbardo. What we need is a way of promoting ordinary heroes, people like Wesley Autrey. What we want, he suggests, is for “our kids to realize most heroes are everyday people, and the heroic act is unusual.”

Zimbardo contends that situations have power, but what one situation does can cause evil or good in a person. Consider the case of Joe Darby. He was the private who revealed the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. He was forced to remain in hiding for three years because of the death threats he received for bringing the issue to a senior officer.

He wasn’t invited on the Letterman show.

Dr. Michael Wilkins, the man who exposed the Willowbrook evils and provided Geraldo Rivera with the key to building 6 (where the news footage was shot), was fired for speaking up about the maltreatment.

He wasn’t invited to the State of the Union address.

Heroes are never going to conform to group norms. This highlights the two core principles of heroism:

  1. Heroes act when others are passive.
  2. Heroes act sociocentrically, not egocentrically.

They act alone, and for the good of others.

Phil Zimbardo’s latest endeavor involves fostering heroic imagination. He contends that we can respond to a new situation by taking one of three paths. Two of the three are active or inactive roads to evil. Path One begins with a mindless action. We shock a person with 15 volts, we exert our power or cheat on something we don’t believe is a big deal. We choose Path Two when we passively allow a crime, or bullying, or mistreatment of others to continue. These two paths take us into the seven social processes on the slippery slope toward evil. But the third path involves a unique type of courage that we are just starting to understand.

Dr. Zimbardo calls it Heroes–in-Waiting, and we need to be prepared. In his own words, we need to be “waiting for the right situation to come along, to put heroic imagination into action. Because it may only happen once in your life, and when you pass it by you’ll always know, I could have been a hero and I let it pass me by. So the point is thinking it and then doing it.”

Developing a heroic imagination means being prepared to act in a way that differs from the crowd — to take responsibility and be mindful, rather than mindless, of your actions.

How do we do this? Wesley Autrey has an idea.

Following a media interview about his heroism he got into a car and summed up what needs to be done to actualize becoming a hero-in-waiting. His advice?

“All New Yorkers! If you see somebody in distress, go for it!”

Zimbardo would agree.

Be mindful of your path. Become a hero-in-waiting.

Do this, and maybe someday you’ll be lucky enough to have some grease on your cap.