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Posts Tagged ‘Apathy’

To understand how the atrocities of the Holocaust could happen, Yale social-psychologist, Stanley Milgram set up his now famous Shock Experiment in 1963.  At the direction of an authority figure in a white lab coat, male volunteers from the Greater New Haven and Bridgeport areas delivered what they thought were real electric shocks with increasing strength whenever a confederate answered a question wrong.  The shock board was labeled from 15v (Slight Shock) to 315v (Extremely Intense Shock!) all the way up to 450v (XXX).

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Stanley Milgram’s Shock Generator. [abc.net.au]

Ringing true with the common defense at the post-war Nuremburg Trials of “just following orders,” Milgram’s results showed a stunning obedience to authority that helped drive the evil of pain infliction.  About two thirds of participants delivered what they believed to be 450v shocks even after the person on the other side of the wall had screamed in agony, complained of a heart condition, and ultimately fell completely silent. Every participant went all the way up to administering a 300v shock.

My psychology advisor in college was Christina Taylor who was the last doctoral student of Stanley Milgram as he died of a heart attack just hours after she successfully defended her dissertation.  Interestingly, Milgram used the research of another psychologist to run his “Small World” experiment where the term “six degrees of separation” was coined.  As if miraculous forces of irony were at work, he graduated high school with arguably the other most famous social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo who is well known for his Stanford Prison Experiment. 

After showing how evil could rear its ugly head in part by people acting out certain schema expectations of roles, he has devoted much of his later career to explaining the root of evil and the psychology of heroism.  In what he calls the Lucifer Effect, after the once favored angel who according to Christian theology was cast from heaven and later became the devil, Zimbardo takes the stance that humans have the potential for good, but sometimes commit evil acts.

Throughout all his writings and talks, one of the most powerful statements Zimbardo makes on the wrongdoing of individuals is a reflection of his former classmate’s work: “Evil starts at 15 volts.”  As Milgram himself reflected, something like the Holocaust does not happen spontaneously because a crazed leader comes to power and everyone decides to all of a sudden carry out genocide.  It started small with racial slurs and jokes amongst friends.  It began with people spitting on the street when a Jewish person walked by and with the speed of a book burning fire, it grew into Kristallnacht, Star of David patches, and Ghettoes.

It is much easier to stop a problem in its infancy at its 15 volt stage before it has snowballed into a 300 volt shock.  Turning a blind eye to problems in their 15 volt stage is a disease that will be fatal to all of mankind.  You wouldn’t see a small stove-top fire in your own home and then walk away, saying you’ll deal with it later, yet that is exactly how we treat many social ills that compete for our attention. We turn a blind eye as they are a glowing ember while indifference and negligence stoke the flames to full blaze.

The antidote to evil according to Philip Zimbardo, is heroism.  While that may sound like a tall order, no one is suggesting we run out and don spandex suits to fight crime (you can do each independently of the other).  The psychology of heroism broken down is really quite simple; all that’s required to be a hero is action.

My earliest sticking memory of this lesson was in my ninth grade English class.  My phenomenal teacher, Denise Cannata used the theme “Evil prevails when good people do nothing” throughout an entire unit reading Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. Now that I am a teacher, it’s a quote I have used with hundreds of students across the globe to instill a sense of urgency and action in a growingly apathetic world.

The same sentiment expressed with more consumer appeal may ring a Pavlovian bell of awareness.  Ad executive, Allen Kay consolidated the citizen mandate of action into a catchy slogan he wrote on September 12, 2001.  The Department of Homeland Security now pays $2-$3 million each year to run it throughout all NYC transportation: “If you see something, say something.”

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This adaptation in Fairfax Co., VA is just one of many around the world now transmitting the same message of awareness and action. [fairfaxcounty.gov]

Take for instance the famous case study of Kitty Genovese, where in a brutal illustration of the bystander effect, it was originally reported that up to 38 witnesses heard her scream for help as she was stabbed repeatedly and raped while she lay dying outside her apartment in Queens in 1964.  Studies have shown that in this prolonged attack, her life may have been saved if the early witnesses took action.  They didn’t have to go down and fight off her assailant, but not a single one even called the police.

As Albert Einstein once said reflecting on the words of cellist, Pablo Casals, “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do bad things, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” To turn a blind eye is the biggest tragedy of humanity.

Since I first watched Hotel Rwanda from the cozy insulation of my suburban-America bubble, one scene always stuck with me because of the painful truth it represents.  When main character, Paul Rusesabagina heard a camera crew finally caught footage of the genocidal violence annihilating the Tutsi minority, he said “I am glad you have shot this footage and that the world will see it.  It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.”  Jack, the camera man who rises from the room says, “Yeah and if no one intervenes, is it still a good thing to show?” Paul: “How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?” Jack: “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘Oh my God that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.”

A very small number of people may see that footage and run off immediately to a war-zone before they even process the dangers.  Others might talk about the situation with friends or donate money to a charitable campaign, which is all well and good.  What will only exacerbate the problems are those who put their heads in the sand and pretend there are no problems at all, the ones who go right back to eating their dinners.  As Dante’s words are recorded, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises, maintain their neutrality.”

I’m not advocating you dive into a two year Peace Corps commitment and run off to a remote African village to help build water filtration systems, although there is high demand there, so if that’s your thing, do it!  But don’t turn a blind eye to the problems all around you.  They may seem insurmountable and overwhelming to the point where you just want to retract into a cocoon of self-focus and live your own life, but the world needs more of you than that.  Give your attention to one kind pursuit and do it with joyful integrity.  You may not be able to do everything for everyone, but you can do something for someone.

Visit your elderly neighbor who has no one to talk with.  Cook dinner for your friend who is stressed.  Bake cookies and hand them out to people living on the streets.  Make cards for children in the hospital. Smile and greet that homeless person on the street like a human instead of an obstacle you have to walk around.  Start small with people you know and then expand to strangers as you can.  There are so many people around you in need of many of the things you might take for granted.  There is an opportunity every day to be a hero.

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Picture taken from a super successful fundraising campaign run in joint effort by IRC, Mercy Corps, and Save the Children to help alleviate the Ethiopian drought.

The first step we need to take is in being receptive to the problems around us.  In Season 1, Episode 1 of Stan Lee’s Who Wants to be a Superhero, where contestants competed to be immortalized by the famous comic, this principle was put to the test.  Setting up a challenge for caped crusaders to change into their superhero costume unseen and race to a checkpoint, a crying child was unsuspectedly wandering into their path.  The premise was simple: the worthy superheroes would stop and help this child even though they had tunnel visions of their own important tasks.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

That is something that Philip Zimbardo is now focused on with his Heroic Imagination Project (HIP).  Recognizing that heroism might seem like an out of reach concept reserved for a talented few individuals, the initiative strives to teach people that heroism is a mindset.  Anyone is capable of heroic actions, but the key lies in that last word: action.

While everyone can take part in simple actions like calling out a friend for a politically incorrect statement, or holding a door open for a parent holding groceries in one arm and a child in the other, it is that child who needs to see the hope of heroism.  In his TED talk, Zimbardo says, “We want kids to think, ‘I’m a hero in waiting, waiting for the right situation to come along, and I will act heroically.’”

In China, my high school students all have a flashbulb memory of a massive earthquake that hit Szechuan province in 2008.  Nine year old Lin Hao ran from the rubble that had collapsed killing many people in his school instantly.  Instead of continuing his escape from the danger, he turned around and helped two of his classmates struggling to free themselves.  When asked why he would do that, he responded by saying “I was the hall monitor.  It was my job to look after my classmates.”

Imagine what a beautiful world this would be if more of us had that mentality regarding all of mankind.

I paid for him to have a hot meal, it was my job to look after my fellow man.
I defended her from a bully, it was my job to look after my fellow man.
I listened to her grieve for hours, it was my job to look after my fellow man.
I gave him a place to stay, it was my job to look after my fellow man.

Try an experiment this week and keep that thought in your mind “It’s my job to look after my fellow man.”  See how it opens up your heart, see how it alters your worldview, see how it directs your every action.


For more information on cultivating heroism in yourself and others, check out the amazingly resourceful and scientific Heroic Imagination Project. for tips that range from common sense awareness to life changing action steps.

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