By Mike Waine
Even if you are not a reader of psychology or sociology, there’s a reasonable chance that you may have come across the Stanford Prison Experiment.
This experiment was led by Dr Philip Zimbardo in 1971, and it involved a simulated prison environment that randomly assigned some participants as inmates and others as guards. The participants so fully embraced their roles that the study had to be called off after only six days due to widespread concern about the abuse and torture that the “guards” were inflicting upon the “inmates”.
The experiment, though criticised for its extreme methodology, seemed to suggest that ‘ordinary people’ readily accept positions of perceived power and can become complicit in horrible acts of violence and evil.
This echoed the philosophical position of Hannah Arendt, who’s theory of ‘the banality of evil’ arose out of her own experiences as a Jew under the Nazi Regime in Germany. She reflects on the crimes of Adolf Eichmann, who she writes was someone doing their job and duty. He, she argues, was not an inherently evil man, but was ‘caught up’ (my words, not Arendt’s) in evil.
Zimbardo, however, now talks about what he learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment and flips Arendt’s phrase around. He argues the case for ‘the banality of heroism’ or the importance of ‘everyday heroes’.
He says “Heroes are ordinary people whose social action is extraordinary- who act when others are passive, who give up ego-centrism for socio-centrism”
We find ourselves living in a time where there is a renewed recognition of the everyday hero. The romantic notions of superheroes, however prevalent in our films, is a thing of the past and we are beginning to hear more and more about the extraordinary things that ordinary people do to make a difference.
Whilst there is great crisis and suffering in our world currently, we need people- we need the church- to step up and become these everyday heroes. We need to continue to pay tribute to those who are already – praising the banality of heroism.
Our nation’s applause for the NHS reveals a deep appreciation for people who are just doing their jobs, but in so doing are ‘caught up’ in acts of great goodness.
We need more of this mindset, acknowledging others and reflecting on our own circumstances and thinking – what could I do?
I’ll end by mentioning a story that Zimbardo tells in his ted talk (see below) – Wesley Autrey, later dubbed the New York Subway hero, dived onto the tracks to save a man’s life whilst 75 others watched on. Autrey said:
“ I did what anyone could do, and what everyone ought to do.”