Back in the early 70s prof Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University conducted what is now a famous (or rather infamous) psychological experiment: he wanted to see what made 'ordinary' people turn bad en-mass - the kind of behaviour seen everywhere from Hitler's Germany to Abu Graib, and all points in-between.
He placed college students in a mock 'prison', some as guards, some as prisoners, and left them to self organise. The experiment had to be stopped after only 6 days because nearly half the prisoners had emotional breakdowns as a consequence of the sadistic treatment they had to endure.
Zimbardo, who (rather spooky given his chosen topic) is a dead ringer for the old-school Master from Doctor Who...
...has since termed this tendency for unexpected collective evil the Lucifer Effect, an idea he develops further in a just published book.
I can't claim to have read it, but in the book he apparently posits that the mirror of the Lucifer Effect should also be true; that, in similar mass terms, we should be able to create conditions that frees the latently heroic in people - the collective Hero Effect. Which seems, to me, a much more interesting idea, and maybe where he should be focusing his future efforts.
We can see this almost spontaneous mass heroism stimulated by a common cause (the Jubilee 2000 human chain around the G8 to the marches against the war in Iraq) or when faced with large scale catastrophe (9/11 and the 7/7 bombings). But the key question is, how do you cultivate the hero when these catalytic conditions don't exist?
In previous generations we might have looked to the classic institutions to do this. But the school system doesn't seem well placed to deliver, for all the 'citizenship' lesson and teaching 'respect'. And joining the army or going to church are now minority activities, and ones often discredited for those on the outside. Nor, in our culture of fear and 'cotton wool kids', is such inspiration likely to come from within the family (most will be looking to keep those heroes locked up tight). There are plenty of self help books out there of course. But most of the heroes in these are essentially individualistic and selfish - the 'hero' lets you achieve what you want for yourself, rather than for the good of others (which is the effect Zimbardo is talking about).
How do you get everyone being heroic then? Pained as I am to suggest it (but obviously where I was going to end up given the nature of this blog), maybe the most likely candidates are brands, given the popularist power they wield. Nike, for instance, is already encouraging people to be heroes, albeit in the world of sport. What if they took that ethos into other areas. And I'm sure their are other likely candidates. Any thoughts?