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Transforming Compassion Into Heroic Action

By Jennifer Dobner November 12, 2014 Posted in: Power Of Compassion , Article

STANFORD, CA - Philip Zimbardo is on a mission to cultivate heroes.

No, he's not talking about the mythical men in tights with disproportionate strengths. Instead, he's looking for those who act on behalf of others wherever and whenever they are needed.

"We are all everyday heroes and we are all heroes in training," Zimbardo says.

Zimbardo, a professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University and a past president of the American Psychological Association, believes this in part because he's one of the few to research the qualities and characteristics of heroism.

It's a topic that's largely gone unstudied by academia, he says, and a behavior that likely gets pushed under the related umbrellas of compassion or altruism.

"My feeling is that altruism is doing a service to the community, to other people, that involves no risk, no personal costs," Zimbardo said Tuesday on the second day of the Science of Compassion conference.

The conference is part of Compassion Week, a series of events and panel discussions centered on the science of compassion and efforts to use that knowledge to transform the arenas of health care, education, business and public service.

Sponsored in part by Dignity Health, Compassion Week is a joint initiative of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, the Charter for Compassion, and the Tenyin Gyatso Institute.

Heroic behavior, by definition, is social action that helps others in need during an emergency or in support of moral cause. It's an action that occurs when one is fully aware of the risks acting may pose.

Zimbardo's work has focused on identifying the psychological processes that contribute to heroic behaviors, including cognition and thinking, emotion and empathy, social altruism, and motivation or moral courage.

Here's what he's found: Heroes were more likely to be educated, more likely to be African American, more likely to be men and three times more likely to have experienced and survived a natural disaster.

But there are also barriers to taking heroic action, Zimbardo says.

Those obstacles can include a high risk of danger, a sense that others are not also helping, a perceived lack of necessary skills, a lack of time and a fear of involvement in a situation to which the person is not related.

In many situations, however, obstacles don't stop people of all ages from acting, Zimbardo noted.

Irena Sendler, for example, persistently cajoled and persuaded the parents of some 2, 500 Jewish children to allow her to smuggle their youngsters out of Warsaw during World War II, saving their lives.

Californian Keenia Williams has twice stopped on the shoulder of an interstate highway to rescue drivers from overturned vehicles, including one that was burning.

And Lin Hao, a 9-year-old boy, ran twice into his crumbled school building after an earthquake in China to rescue surviving classmates.

"Look at what he said, 'I was the hall monitor. It was my job to look over my classmates'," Zimbardo recounted.

Sendler, Williams and Lin all embody what Zimbardo now works to teach through a nonprofit foundation he's been a part of for the past eight years called the Heroic Imagination Project.

The program is working with schools around the world to bring the concepts of compassion and heroic action to students aged 13 and older.

"Our premise is that ordinary people are capable of taking extraordinary action," he says.

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