Feature

Kris Leppien-Christensen, PhD, was driving his wife and then-5-year-old son home late one night when he saw a bicyclist crash on the sidewalk. "It was in a sketchy part of town, on a dark back road," remembers Leppien-Christensen. Ordinarily, he might have been too wary to stop and help.

But Leppien-Christensen, a psychology professor at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., had just been teaching his students about the bystander effect — the tendency to watch and wait for someone else to act during a dangerous situation — as part of an innovative educational program called the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP).

That experience prompted him to stop the car, lock his family safely inside with a cell phone and ask the bicyclist if he was OK. Seeing the man was injured, Leppien-Christensen called 911, but the man rode off before the ambulance arrived. "It ended up he was inebriated," says Leppien-Christensen. "I think he just wanted to get on his way."

Still, Leppien-Christensen was glad he stopped.

"I can't say I wouldn't have done something before, but having been a part of the Heroic Imagination Project definitely prompted me to be more eager to intervene," he says. "I really wanted my son to see that it's a social obligation to intervene when we can."

Launched by psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, in 2010, the San Francisco-based HIP translates social psychological research findings on conformity, obedience and other potentially negative social influences into practical tools teachers and others can use to encourage effective action in challenging situations.

Now Psi Beta, the national honor society for psychology students at community colleges, is partnering with the project to train students to deliver interventions in middle and high schools. Members of APA's Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS) are also using project materials in their classrooms.

The goal? To create what Zimbardo calls "everyday heroes" who are willing to help others in need or defend a moral cause despite potential costs and risks to themselves.

Standing up, speaking out

Zimbardo came up with the idea for HIP while writing his 2007 book "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding Why Good People Turn Evil."

"I began to explore whether the banality of evil had a counterpart in the banality of heroism," says Zimbardo, an emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford who is now a professor at Palo Alto University and president and director of research at HIP. "If good people could be led to do bad things, is it possible that ordinary people could be trained to do heroic things?"

Putting that idea into practice is HIP's goal. "Our mission is to teach individuals, especially our youth, to stand up, speak out and act courageously and effectively in challenging situations in their lives," says Zimbardo.

The project has developed eight core lessons that combine academic content drawn from social psychology research with fun activities such as viewing video clips illustrating various scenarios. Topics include the bystander effect, conformity and peer pressure, prejudice and intergroup conflict, positive self-talk in challenging situations and mindset, a lesson that draws on the research of psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, to teach students that their intelligence, talent and ability to overcome challenges aren't fixed but can be improved through dedication and hard work.

Whether the audience is high school kids, college students or young professionals, the basic framework of each lesson is the same. Students begin by exploring how they think they and others would react to a given situation, then watch videos or listen to stories illustrating the psychological processes that hinder or promote action. Next, students think of times they have acted or not acted as they should have and decide whether and how they need to improve their skills. They then develop effective change-making strategies and plan for future challenges by thinking about a situation they'll encounter soon, setting goals and reviewing the research to come up with ways of overcoming likely obstacles. In the final phase, students reflect on their personal "take-aways" and how to spread the word, such as by launching a community service project. The material is flexible enough that instructors can use it for semester-long courses or just incorporate 10- to 15-minute snippets into existing courses.

Zimbardo believes the program, which has been extensively pilot-tested, is revolutionary, both in its content and the fact that the delivery method is standardized across each topic area.

"Thus, teachers no longer need to prepare lectures or exams," he says. "The material is all interactive, and the proof of student learning is built into the standard forms students complete, such as summarizing the three take-home messages from each lesson and with whom and how they will share what they have learned, turning students into mentors."

HIP differs from similar initiatives, such as social and emotional learning and character development programs, because of its emphasis on situational awareness, says Clint Wilkins, a former high school principal who is now HIP's director of education.

"We focus on what holds people back from taking courageous action in challenging situations," says Wilkins, adding that most young people want to do the right thing but may not know how or have much practice. "What we do is pull back the veil and give them a glimpse of how situations work."

The human tendency to seek acceptance and avoid rejection, for example, can keep people from speaking up and lead entire groups into poor decision-making. Similarly, says Wilkins, the tendency to rely on others to interpret a situation can stop people from responding to crises.

"Sometimes situations work for us, but sometimes they work against our best interests," says Zimbardo. "The key lies in understanding that difference."

Teaching heroism

Now psychology professors, high school psychology teachers and students themselves are getting involved.

Thanks to Psi Beta Executive Director Jerry Rudmann, PhD, Psi Beta chapters are using HIP materials to deliver service learning interventions to high school and community college students, for example.

The Psi Beta chapter at Irvine Valley College piloted the project last year, adapting HIP's lesson on the bystander effect and videotaping a train-the-trainers session so other chapters could learn how to deliver the material. Eight chapters then participated in the bystander effect intervention, and Psi Beta is now working on mindset, prejudice and anti-bullying lessons.

Psi Beta didn't just want to give chapters a service learning project, says Leppien-Christensen, explaining that projects such as serving lunches at soup kitchens or helping out at homeless shelters are often no more than volunteerism.

"That's useful and students benefit, but they're not directly applying theory and cutting-edge research in their activities," he says. "With HIP, they're taking current research and telling other students, ‘Hey, this is a common social phenomenon; don't be trapped by it.'"

TOPSS has also gotten involved, with high school psychology teachers piloting programs, providing feedback to HIP staff and suggesting ways to market HIP to high school administrators.

Jann Longman, a former TOPSS chair who recently retired as a psychology teacher at Liberty High School in Renton, Wash., used some of the lessons in her own classroom.

"The lessons really resonate with people," she says.

Her former students have reported how much the mindset lesson she taught them helped them become "academic heroes" in their first semesters at college, she says. Their initial discouragement disappeared when they remembered to view academic troubles not as a sign that they weren't smart enough but as challenging new learning experiences and a prod to study more and just work harder, she says.

The lessons, especially those on the power of situations to influence behavior, have also helped students who go on to the military, says Longman, noting that several worried beforehand that they would find themselves doing things that were morally wrong.

"I had one student come back and say that in several situations when he was overseas, the lessons had really helped him," says Longman. Having learned about the forces that keep people from acting as they should, she explains, the student was able to step up and say something instead of simply going along with negative things others were doing.

To supplement such anecdotal evidence, HIP is collecting quantitative data. Psi Beta chapters that wish to fully participate in the program, for example, must agree to collect data on the intervention's effect on both the students receiving it and the students delivering it. (Because colleges must get approval from local institutional review boards (IRBs), there are also non-research options for colleges that don't have IRBs.) Preliminary data show that HIP programs increase participants' knowledge and awareness of situational dynamics, says Wilkins.

In the meantime, the project is now spreading beyond U.S. borders, says Zimbardo, citing workshops in Hong Kong and Sweden and new plans to implement the project across the entire Polish school system. He's hoping that the initiative will spread beyond students, too.

"Everyone is a potential hero by engaging in daily habits of promoting the social good — as heroes in training," says Zimbardo.

For more information, visit Heroic Imagination. To get involved, email.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.