Northwest Flight 253:The Psychology of Heroism

Jasper Schuringa, a passenger on Northwest Flight 253 to Detroit, helped prevent alleged bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from setting off an explosive device on the flight on Christmas Day. Would you have done the same? Philip Zimbardo, a professor at Stanford University, thinks there's a good chance you would have, and as one of the country's sharpest observers of human behavior in extreme circumstances, he would know. Zimbardo is most famous for running the Stanford Prison Experiment, which demonstrated that good people can easily be induced to do bad things if their environment subtly pushes them in that direction. Zimbardo says the same is true of heroes—all it takes to transform an ordinary person into one is a little encouragement. He talked with NEWSWEEK's Mary Carmichael about the psychology of heroism. Excerpts:

What can we learn about heroes from the story of Flight 253? What would have caused a guy like Jasper Schuringa to leap across rows of airplane seats and subdue a terrorist?
I think this young man's heroic action says less about his special personality than it does about the new social norms of what appropriate behavior is on an airplane. Before 9/11, the social norm was to leave things up to the crew, to be passive in the face of any emergency, because it's up to the staff to take care of it. United 93 changed all that, with the awareness that this wasn't just a hijacking, that they had planned to use the airplane as a ballistic missile. At that moment, a new social norm was created, which was that everyone, including passengers, must act individually or, better, collectively to risk their lives to save the lives of others. Since then, there have been lots of cases where somebody's been acting unruly and passengers have grabbed the guy before the crew does. So in this recent case, on the flight to Detroit, if he hadn't acted, other people would have.

But would those other people have been naturally prone to heroism, too? Is there something special, psychologically, about people who do heroic things?
What is the thing in your brain that says, "I'm going to act rather than not act?" We don't know that. But we do know anyone can be a hero. Most heroes are ordinary people, and they tell us, "I'm nothing special, how could I not do what I did?" It's the flip side of Hannah Arendt's banality of evil: We all have the potential for heroism, and we are pushed [into it].

There's no specific personality trait associated with heroism?
You don't have to be a special kind of person, but that's what we tend to assume. America, especially, has an individualistic culture, and we want to believe that evil is in special kinds of bad people and heroism is in special kinds of good people. We want to believe that heroes must be more religious or more empathetic or more altruistic than the rest of us. We want to believe that heroism comes from a set of personal virtues. But the social context is more important. To be a hero, what you mostly need is opportunity. We have research that shows that blacks are eight times more likely than whites to have engaged in a heroic act in their life. The reason is simply [that] they have more opportunities. If you live in an urban area, you're more likely to do something heroic, because there's more crime. There's more danger. Whereas if you live in the suburbs, the chance to become a hero is nil.

What about men versus women? Aren't men more socially conditioned, at least, to be heroic?
The traditional view of heroes comes from Joseph Campbell, from the hero's journey, and with that you do think of men, you think of warriors. But if physical courage is not involved, women are at least as likely as men to do something heroic, and if creating a network is part of the act, they're actually more likely to get involved. That's important, because heroes are most effective in a team. Look at Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi—they were effective because they created a movement, a social system that carried on after they died.

What else does the psychological research say about heroism?
There's actually very little research on it. I've been working on the problem of evil, and there's a whole bunch of research on the conditions that will make people lie, cheat, steal. But there's nothing on whistle-blowers, for instance, on what makes somebody challenge a system of fraud and injustice.

Then what can we learn from the research on evil?
You see the same dynamic in evil as you do in heroism: it's systemic. It's not traced to the individual. We're fascinated with Hitler and how the Nazis could have been seduced by this charismatic figure, but Hitler created the system that allowed for evil, and once he did, all the plots to kill him would have made no difference. Most people can be a good cop or a bad cop; it's all about the circumstances. That's what they found in the Milgram experiments, where they got the participants to give what they thought were stronger and stronger electric shocks to people just by telling them to do it. And my [prison] study showed that you don't even need a powerful authority saying, "Do this bad thing." You just have to create a system that gives people that role.

So has anyone tried to do the reverse of your prison study, to put people in a contrived situation where they're subtly encouraged to be heroic?
No one's done it in the lab. But in my book The Lucifer Effect, I do a thought experiment that's the reverse of the Milgram experiments: can you get people to do something that they never thought they would do by getting their foot in the door? You start by asking people to do small good deeds: "Would you be willing to spend 10 minutes on the phone talking to a needy child?" Then you ramp it up: "Would you be willing to take that kid to the zoo?"

And that's the basis for your social program, the Heroic Imagination Project?
Right. By getting everyone to think of themselves as heroes in waiting, I think that will make it more likely when the opportunity comes that they'll take action. So we're experimenting with that idea in schools. We have a curriculum in Flint, Mich., with five classes of fifth graders, and we'll also get kids to sign up on our Web site, to say, "I'm willing to be a hero in waiting, and while I'm waiting, I'm going to do a little heroic deed every day. I'm going to try to make someone's life better. I'm going to get someone in my family to stop smoking. I'm going to organize my friends against bullying." And when the opportunity for big heroism comes around to them, we hope they will be better psychologically prepared to act.