Philip Zimbardo

Civic Virtue, Moral Commitment, Everyday Heroism

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In contemporary society, all of us face huge challenges if we want to promote civic virtue in ourselves and avoid giving in to destructive actions. In many countries the form of government is turning from democratic to autocratic, with power concentrated in the hands of a few despots. What I expect is that President Trump’s United States will witness the same changes that have taken place in European countries led by the right. 

In a situation in which a ruling elite exercises dominance over the weaker segments, there is more need than ever for new heroic figures; that is, ordinary people willing to make a stand and take action against the various forms of injustice or the simple inaction of the majority. In this article I offer some food for thought on what could be done on an individual, situational, and systemic level to oppose what induces people to behave maliciously towards others and violate fundamental moral principles. It will be a socio-psychological analysis with references to positive psychology. 

On an individual level, let’s try to imagine Milgram’s well-known experiment back to front: the goal, in this case, is to create a situation in which people end up following growing demands for good deeds–rather than inflicting strong electric shocks on innocent victims. In this new version we will encourage ordinary people to gradually act more altruistically and to progressively say “yes” to carrying out positive, pro-social actions: a slow ascent toward goodness. 

On an abstract level, how would you design a situation that would make this possible? Start by imagining setting up a list of experiences for participants, on a scale that goes from actions that are only slightly better than what they usually do, to extremely altruistic ones. 

The first “button” on the Goodness Generator could be spending ten minutes writing a thank you note for a friend. The next level could be taking care of a child in need for twenty minutes. The altruism continues to rise over a few hours: the good deed, in this case, might consist in looking after a friend’s son, working for one evening in a soup kitchen, taking a group of children to the zoo, and so on. Ideally, our experiment on social goodness ends when the person acts as s/he would never have thought of doing, completing something that would have been unimaginable on the eve of the experiment. This route to goodness could also involve donating one’s time or money to help the environment, once again on a hypothetical scale ranging from minimum to maximum difficulty. 

In my book The Lucifer Effect, I highlighted the situational and systemic conditions that favor evil acts. Now, using the example of the Goodness Generator, let’s try using variants of these same conditions in an attempt to bring out the best in people. Here are ten steps to promote civic virtue and spark heroism in the citizens of every country, young and old. 

1.Encouraging admission of mistakes, accepting errors of judgment. Being willing to say openly that you made a mistake reduces the need to justify it and makes it less likely you’ll continue to support wrong or immoral actions. 

2.Encouraging mindfulness in people, reminding them in variety of ways not to live on “autopilot,” but to take a moment to reflect on the immediate situation, to think before acting, not to go mindlessly into situations which it would be appropriate to steer clear of. 

3.Promoting a sense of personal responsibility for one’s actions, making people aware that situations of diffused responsibility simply conceal our individual role within them. 

4.Discouraging even the smallest transgressions: cheating, gossiping, lying, teasing, arrogance. These small acts represent the first steps toward ever worse behavior. 

5.Learning to distinguish just authority, to whom respect and obedience must be shown, from unjust authority, toward whom disrespect and disobedience are necessary for change.  

6.Promoting critical thinking from the earliest times in a child’s life. Asking for evidence to support assertions, demanding that ideas be sufficiently elaborated to separate rhetoric from reality-based conclusions.  

7.Rewarding the social modeling of moral behavior, giving public recognition to those who do the right thing, for example by denouncing corruption or mafia-type crimes. 

8.Respecting and appreciating human diversity. This is fundamental for reducing our tendency to show bias toward one’s own group, which in turn leads to denigration of others, prejudice and discrimination.  

9.Changing social conditions so people no longer feel anonymous but special, increasing their self-esteem and boosting their sense of self-worth.  

10.Becoming aware that conformity to the group norm can sometimes be counterproductive and that, in other cases, independence should take precedence, regardless of the risk of rejection by the group.  

Currently, my research activity and my socio-political actions as a citizen and scientist are mainly oriented towards understanding how to promote goodness rather than showing how easy it is to transform good people into perpetrators of evil. To do this effectively and on a global scale, I founded the Heroic Imagination Project, a non-profit organization based in San Francisco that develops courses to motivate people of all ages to aspire to become everyday heroes ( 

Philip Zimbardo


P. G. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Tun Evil (New York: Random House, 2017) 

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