Heroic Imagination Project

The Heroic Imagination Project provides lessons and tools to encourage “everyday heroism”

By Clint Wilkins

The scene is a hotel conference room in San Francisco at the 2012 annual Western Psychological Association meeting. A group of community college students have gathered with former APA President Phillip Zimbardo, PhD, to discuss their upcoming poster presentation and to learn more about Dr. Zimbardo’s new life’s work, the Heroic Imagination Project.
Early in the gathering one student asked Dr. Zimbardo, “What do you know now, at this stage in your career, that you wish you had known from the start”?

His response captivated them. “Over the past 40 years, social psychologists have opened our eyes to the power that situations hold over us. They lifted a veil and showed us how easily people are influenced by the situations they find themselves in and how, with little prompting, good people can do bad things. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a prime example.

“Yet, we missed two important things. First, we did not pay much attention, if any, to the minority who stood up and spoke out against evil. Take, for example, the Milgram authority experiments of the 1960s. There were 19 variations in all, and in one where there was an ally of the ‘teacher-participant’ (actually a Milgram ‘confederate’) who resisted the authority figure, compliance fell from 65 percent down to only 10 percent. That is huge. The clues were there — the power of individuals or networks of individuals to neutralize negative social influences — yet we chose to focus on the dark side of human behavior and failed to recognize just how significantly little things could make such a big difference.

“The second thing we missed was how we could apply social psychology to help people improve their lives. My lessons (like those of other social psychologists) as a teacher were designed to be compelling academic exercises, but with little attention paid to the experiential dimension.”

Zimbardo went on to talk about his own journey over the past five years, starting with his experience as an expert witness on Abu Ghraib and later in writing "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil." As he says, the writing process turned out to be “grim, grim, grim!” It was then that he started paying greater attention to those brave people who had resisted the influences of the dark side of human behavior. It was then that he started to explore research into how ordinary people could do extraordinary things in the face of challenging situations, a process we now refer to as “everyday heroism.”

That was the genesis of the Heroic Imagination Project and its mission — to teach young people how to “stand up, speak out and act courageously in challenging situations.” Just as the group was about to leave, Dr. Zimbardo made one more point. “Now that you have become knowledgeable about how challenging situations work — like the bystander effect and negative peer pressure, you are obligated. You are obligated to use this knowledge constructively in your daily lives, whether in opposing evil or in inspiring heroic actions.”

Two years of pilots

Two years ago, as a retired high school principal embarking on a new career, I became captivated by social psychology in my new role as the Heroic Imagination Project’s founding director of education. As I settled into my duties, I read as much as I could about the social and psychological dynamics behind challenging social situations and the power individuals and groups could have in bringing about positive social change. And, the more I learned about social psychology, the more I began to realize what a prominent role it could play in a young person’s education and everyday life.

Following is a summary of the first two years of our pilot programs.

Year one

In our first year, we focused on many of the common social situations that have been the subject of famous experiments, including the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Asch conformity experiments, the Milgram obedience experiments and the bystander experiments conducted by John Darley, Bibb Latane and John Batson. We taught small groups of high school students in the San Francisco Bay Area, introducing these topics through short videos, followed by classroom activities that highlighted specific social dynamics and our automatic reactions to them. During that year we also started to develop a catalogue of hands-on activities to make these lessons more relevant to students’ lives.

Early in that first year, I made my first major discovery: Wow — students absolutely love this material. While this is an insight that certainly comes as no surprise whatsoever to any of you high school and college psychology teachers — students’ responsiveness to a scientific analysis of “the dark side” of human nature was infectious. I fed off their natural curiosity. The more we taught our material, the more we could see that we were filling a rather large void in their education and in their ability to make sense of their social worlds. How else can you explain the dramatic growth of psychology instruction on the secondary level, where nearly 30 percent of high school students take some formal coursework and where AP psychology enrollment (as indicated by exam volume) has skyrocketed since its first few years in the early 1990s?

As the year progressed, our small education staff began to see a few patterns emerging in the form of two human tendencies: the tendency to watch and wait (aka the bystander effect) and the tendency to go along to get along (aka conformity and peer pressure). As the year progressed, our students became increasingly adept at spotting patterns, reveling in such counterintuitive notions as “diffusion of responsibility” and “group ignorance” and turning complex psychological jargon into words of one syllable, literally, such as “fear.” “Informational conformity” was transformed into “fear of being wrong,” and “normative conformity” into “fear of being weird.” Our students were beginning understand “situational awareness” in their own terms, and, by the way, communicate what they had learned to others.

All along, I began to see that there was also a bright side to challenging situations, particularly in the power of individuals and small groups to turn them into something positive. I also began to see that it doesn’t take a herculean effort to do so.

The concept of “everyday heroism” — not the superhero of movies or epic literature — started to take shape. Ordinary people could indeed do extraordinary things in their communities. This brought me to my second major discovery: Little things can indeed make a big difference, if only you know where to look and how to act.

Another big breakthrough in our first year came when our team developed an assessment instrument and protocols that would serve as the foundation for our current and future research efforts. We adapted a scale built on Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets. Why not apply her notions of “growth” and “fixed” mindsets, which she used so effectively in the field of intelligence to such social situations as bystanders and obedience to authority? Armed with this assessment tool, we were starting to get encouraging hard data — on a small scale to be sure — through formal pretesting and post-testing of students in our pilots.

Year two

In the second year, we moved beyond the San Francisco Bay Area into other regions of California, and from high school students to the world of colleges and universities. We also transitioned from stand-alone lessons to lessons linked together. In other words, we created a curriculum. We piloted a semester-long seminar, “Cultivating Heroic Leadership,” at the University of California, Berkeley and a semester-length service-learning course at California State University Monterey Bay and assisted students at College of the Canyons in Los Angeles in a year-long “service-experiment” that became a poster presentation at the Western Psychological Association meeting in San Francisco.

In Orange County at Sage Hill School, we taught high school juniors and seniors the basics of social psychology in preparation for them to “teach back” what they learned to younger students, whether it was in giving ninth graders on their own campus tools for handling negative peer pressure or showing middle school students how to confront bullying. And we conducted a variety of workshops — from school violence in Tijuana, Mexico, to a Sheriff’s Academy training program for new recruits in Los Angeles.

By the end of year two, we had developed four new lessons, a range of new tools and an emerging appreciation of the power of attitudes.

New lessons

Two of the new lessons focus on the inner lives of young people. “Resisting the Hidden Power of Social Situations” focuses on being able to recognize our own blind spots and automatic reactivity in the face of challenges. “Changing Your Mindset to Overcome Challenging Situations” focuses on using failure as tool of success.

The third new lesson, “Overcoming Prejudice by Respecting Individual Qualities,” focuses on attributions and groups. And the fourth new lesson addresses academic achievement in the face of negative stereotyping, or “stereotype threat.”

New tools for action

We also started to experiment with good metaphors, or tools, for young people to put to use in taking action. We started to build a “toolkit,” which included a map of common social situations and a “pause button” to interrupt our automatic thought processes along with some change-making strategies — the “how” of positive social change. For example:

  • The Power of One — How to be the first and specific in helping others in need; 

  • The Power of Two — How to be an ally to others who are doing the right thing; 

  • The Power of Three — How to use group psychology to promote prosocial behavior. 

The importance of attitudes

Early results indicate that our curriculum is powerful for young people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. But it may be especially so for those who face the challenges of poverty and discrimination on a daily basis. For many young people in low-income communities, the very acts of going to school and doing their homework could be considered heroic, given the sheer number of obstacles they have to overcome daily. Once they have experienced our curriculum, these young people begin to see themselves anew — that they have already become quite adept at navigating challenging situations.

A sociologist would call this “agency.” A psychologist might call this “self-efficacy.” Whatever the terminology, our participants were beginning to think of themselves as having a “can do” spirit. This change of attitude, what we would call a growth mindset, is perhaps the most transformative and durable outcome of all.

After all, it is this new attitude — that they can be the initiators of positive change — that they can take with them wherever they go and they can draw upon as they exercise their newly found skills.

Looking ahead

As we begin our third year, we are now focusing on tangible applications with our two major audiences being (1) middle and high school teachers of psychology and (2) college students.

Our high school initiative

As a retired high school principal, I know from experience that it is impossible to add anything to a school program without taking something away, unless it can fill a critical unmet need or make a teacher more effective. So, we have designed our lessons with these two criteria in mind. We have divided our lessons into 10- to 15-minute “snippets” and by stressing the “counterintuitive” nature of our content, they are designed to achieve maximum impact.

They can be used in general psychology courses and even advanced placement psychology, particularly in offering students a perspective not normally cited in traditional text books. They can also be used: 

  • In advisory sessions and life skills courses. Ten- to 15-minute snippets from our lessons are very well suited for wellness classes, student advisory periods and life-skills classes in high schools and middle schools.

  • In leadership courses and student government. Student leaders and their faculty advisors for student governments can mix and match elements from our lessons and our toolkit to enhance any number of leadership initiatives and service projects. Student leaders can take our lessons on the bystander effect and apply them to bullying, for example, or use our lesson on negative peer pressure to reduce discrimination and prejudice emanating from various groups or cliques. 

  • In Micro-Service® projects for AP classes. In the span of two years we have developed a number of service projects and social psychology experiments that could be easily implemented in as little time as one hour to eight to 10 hours, ideal for that period between the end of formal class work in AP classes — somewhere in the middle of May and graduation — and the end of the school year — somewhere late in May or early July. This may also fit into a psychology club project.

Our college initiative

We are currently offering workshops to train college students majoring in psychology to deliver these interventions in high schools and middle schools with a focus on low-income youth. Our train the trainer workshops provide college students with the tools they need to plan, execute and report on a service project that will take a semester to perform.

In the 2012-2013 academic year, we have partnered with Psi Beta, the honor society for psychology students at community colleges, to bring our interventions to all of its 140 chapters nationwide. And once we complete the Psi Beta initiative, we are looking to partner with Psi Chi, the honor society for psychology students in four-year colleges. Whether they are community college or four-year college students, we expect that they will comprise our first phalanx of “coaches.” 

Central to our college program are “interventions.” These are short lessons based on the latest social psychological research, simple in design and execution. Each intervention is divided into in three parts: 

  1. Uncovering the power of social situations 

  2. Learning how to change yourself and others, and 

  3. Getting started on “teaching back” what you have just learned.

And college students can choose one of our six core lessons to serve as the foundation and topic area for their intervention. 

To support these research-based service projects, we are developing a how-to handbook, replete with a step-by-step guide and accompanying resources. 

The design of these interventions is informed by state-of-the-art research, specifically the work of the following social psychologists: Carol Dweck at Stanford in the field of “mindsets”; Claude Steele, Gregory Walton and Geoff Cohen at Stanford University in the fields of “stereotype threat, belonging and values affirmation”; Timothy Wilson of University of Virginia in the field of “core narratives”; and Peter Gollwitzer of New York University in the fields of “action triggers” and “implementation and goal intentions.” 

We strongly suspect that some psychology students who participate in our program will, upon graduation, go on to become AmeriCorps members and work in youth organizations and schools. In these capacities, they will be able to develop and implement longer-term interventions and track young people and their schools over a longer period of time. There is an additional benefit in that this group of college graduates will become the first generation of what social psychologists Gregory Walton and David Yeager call “psychological engineers.” 

We fully expect that our college initiative will lead to the establishment of a cost-effective delivery system: We teach college students who in turn teach high school students, who in turn teach middle school students. Each of these groups is modeling and leveraging everyday heroism. It’s a triple win. 

Furthermore, the key players in bringing about positive change are the most often overlooked: teenagers themselves. Whether or not they consider themselves among the cool kids, influential leaders or not, every young person has the power within to be a catalyst for positive change. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is not the domain of a few individuals endowed with certain natural gifts. Every one of us has the potential to stand up and speak out. As Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.”

Dr. Zimbardo’s admonition revisited

Remember Dr. Zimbardo’s encounter with the college students at the Western Psychological Association annual meeting, his reflections on the blind spots of social psychologists in recognizing how individuals and small groups of individuals can indeed have power over negative situations? Remember how his generation underestimated the positive applications of social psychology to improve the lives of individuals and the communities in which they live?

Well, now we have some answers, and some practical tools. That leaves it up to us to do our part. After all, “now that we know,” we are all obligated.

For more information or to connect with a member of our education team: 

  • Consult our website

  • Email us

Clint WilkinsClint Wilkins, the director of education for the Heroic Imagination Project, has a long and distinguished career in nearly all areas of schooling, in both independent schools and in public education. Early in his career he was as a teacher, coach, college counselor, dean of students, principal and assistant headmaster at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. After serving as chief executive officer of two outstanding independent schools on both coasts, in 1998 he was able to realize his lifelong dream of founding a school: Sage Hill School, the first nondenominational, independent high school in Orange County, Calif. — which is thriving — now educates 450 students and enjoys a national reputation. Over his career Clint has also served as the principal of a charter school in Oakland, a visiting scholar at Stanford University School of Education, an associate with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. Clint received his BA from Williams College in history, a masters from Harvard University in religion, and his secondary school teaching credentials at Princeton University. He is married to Carla Woscoboinik Wilkins, a Chilean, and has three grown children.