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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

In Your Health on this Monday morning, we have a story about villains and heroes.

Unidentified Man: Prisoner 819 is being punished, Mr. Correctional Officer.

INSKEEP: Prisoner 819 being punished. In 1971, at Stanford University, a young psychology professor simulated a prison. Some of the young men playing the guards became sadistic, even violent, and the experiment had to be stopped. The results of the Stanford Prison Experiment show that people tend to conform, even when that means otherwise good people doing terrible things.

Since then, the experiment has been used to help explain everything from Nazi Germany to Abu Ghraib. And now in a new project, the psychologist who created the prison experiment is trying to show that people can learn to bring out the best in themselves rather than the worst. KQED's Amy Standen reports from San Francisco.

AMY STANDEN: It was 40 years ago that Philip Zimbardo created the Stanford Prison Experiment. But he says he's still hearing about it.

Professor PHILIP ZIMBARDO (Psychologist): I hate the idea that the Stanford Prison Study is the main, you know, the main thing most people know me for.

STANDEN: Zimbardo has done many things. He was a professor of psychology at Stanford University for 40 years. He's been president of the American Psychological Association. He's written a book about the psychology of time and established a clinic for shy people. But he says these other achievements are often overlooked.

Prof. ZIMBARDO: As soon as people meet me, like I go around the world oh, you're the prison guy. Or, you know, I'm checking into a hotel, you know, and there's a receptionist. I mention my name, Zimbardo. Aren't you the one who did that that aren't you the one that created that prison?

STANDEN: Here's how the experiment worked: Zimbardo recruited 24 male college students, paid them $15 a day to spend two weeks in a fake prison in a basement on the Stanford campus. Half of the students were assigned to be guards, the others were prisoners.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #2: What happened surprised everyone, including Zimbardo.

STANDEN: This clip comes from an educational video made about the experiment.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #3: Once you put a uniform on and are given a role, saying your job is to keep these people in line, then you're not - certainly not the same person as if you're in street clothes and in a different role.

STAMBERG: Some of guards in the experiment became abusive; prisoners showed signs of mental breakdown. After six days, Zimbardo shut the experiment down, sent everyone home. His reputation was sealed: He was the guy who had revealed that normal people can do very bad things. If you expose them to wrongdoing, even evil, they'll join in.

Prof. ZIMBARDO: So here I am, this evil scientist, creating this situation where evil is dominating good.

STANDEN: The problem is, Zimbardo doesn't see himself that way. He sees himself as a force of good in the world, not evil. And so now, retired from teaching at the age of 78, he has a new project, one that aims to change his legacy in a dramatic way: to turn regular people into heroes.

Not comic book heroes, but rather someone who would have helped Jews escape from the Holocaust. Or even something more ordinary, like standing up for a classmate who's being bullied.

Prof. ZIMBARDO: Heroes are not extraordinary people. They are ordinary people who do an extraordinary thing, step out of themselves, put their best self forward in service to humanity. And it starts with internalizing heroic imagination, namely: I could do it.

STANDEN: So he's calling it the Heroic Imagination Project. It's a nonprofit training organization based in San Francisco. One of the first programs has been to teach heroism at high school, a charter school called ARISE, in one of the tougher neighborhoods of Oakland, California.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

STANDEN: The instructor in the heroism course is Clint Wilkins. Over the course of the year, he's been teaching the students to recognize how their environment can shape their behavior.

Mr. CLINT WILKINS (Instructor, Heroic Imagination Project): As you can see, there are two kinds of ways of conforming, right? Do you guys remember which they are?

STANDEN: Conformity is not an abstract concept to these students. Two years ago, the bystander effect happened not far from here. A 16-year-old girl was gang-raped by at least six men during a homecoming dance. Dozens of kids watched, some of them sent texts to their friends, telling them to come check it out. It took two hours before anyone called the police.

So this class is about training kids to break away from the pack, to be the person who defies conformity and does the right thing. Phillip Johnson is a senior in the heroism class.

Mr. PHILLIP JOHNSON (Student): They had to see the girl, you know? They had to see that girl go in the back with all those guys. And if I see a group of guys in a circle or something, I'm going to go over there and say, yo, what's going on here? And if I see what's going on, you know, it's like, oh, wow. But that didn't happen, apparently.

STANDEN: The other students fall silent. Like Phillip Johnson. They'd like to think they would have been the one to call the cops. But if there's one lesson to be learned from this class, it's this: You aren't always the person you think you're going to be. Being able to imagine a different life for yourself is part of this school, and it's the point of the heroism course.

It seems to be taking hold in Brandon Amaro. He's a sweet-faced 16-year-old kid who grew up in a farm town in Southern California. Brandon says sometimes he feels like he could do something really exceptional with his life, something even his parents might not know he's capable of. But then he starts having doubts. He says it's as if there are two Brandons.

Mr. BRANDON AMARO (Student): The good one is like an over-energetic bee in my ear, always buzzing and buzzing and buzzing, telling: You can do it. You can do it. Go for it.

STANDEN: Then there's the bad one.

Mr. AMARO: Like, the one who's kind of like someone pressing down on your shoulders. He sees, like, something good, and he's like, no. You can't try.

STANDEN: Brandon says when he imagines himself grown up, he's just not so conflicted anymore.

Mr. AMARO: The older me is going to be much more mature, more confident. He's going to walk and everybody's going to just know it's him. He's going to know who he is.

STANDEN: Psychologist Philip Zimbardo says he sees himself in these kids. After all, he grew up poor, too.

Mr. ZIMBARDO: Growing up on welfare, in poverty, in the ghetto, in the South Bronx, amidst evil, drugs and prostitution and gangs and violence, and I rose above that. In some mystical way, I have always been the leader.

STANDEN: But the question is: Why did Zimbardo rise above? Why does anybody become a leader or a hero, and someone else becomes a follower or worse? And do we have a choice? Philip Zimbardo's class is teaching the students that they do.

But other social psychologists believe humans are more hard-wired than that. For example, they say criminal behavior comes from individual differences in personality, things like lack of self-control, differences we're either born with or things we never learned as children.

Augustine Brannigan, who studies criminal behavior at the University of Calgary, is one of these people. I asked him what he thinks of the idea of a heroism class.

Mr. AUGUSTINE BRANNIGAN (University of Calgary): Whether you can - to be -teach them to become heroes? No. What you can do is you can expose them to the narratives about heroes. If it takes, it takes. If it doesn't, they still have the narrative, and they'll respect it. But that doesn't mean that they'll change their behavior.

STANDEN: Philip Zimbardo aims to prove this wrong. He's betting that by studying heroic narratives, learning about human nature and taking on community service projects, the students actually will change the way they act.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

STANDEN: One afternoon, while the students are in their heroism class, a fight breaks out in the hallway.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

STANDEN: Not students, but some neighborhood kids, possibly gang-affiliated, drift in from the street and start causing trouble.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

STANDEN: A teacher calls 911.

Unidentified Woman: Guys, I want to make sure you're helping out with whatever situation just happened at arise. Thank you.

STANDEN: The students in the heroic imagination class cluster in the doorway, craning their necks to get a better look. And when they return to their seats, they begin to wonder: Maybe this was exactly one of those opportunities they'd been talking about, a chance to step up, to be a hero. But it all happened so fast, and no one did anything. Senior Phillip Johnson.

Mr. JOHNSON: Students could have, like, been, like, you know, someone come get this person. It shouldn't have been a group of people watching, you know.

STANDEN: On the other hand, others argue, maybe having a teacher call the police was exactly the right thing to do. There's no sense jumping into a brawl if you're just going to get hurt.

Sometimes they say it's hard to tell when's the right time to do something extraordinary and when it's better to just stay on the sidelines.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen, in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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