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Annotated captions of Philip Zimbardo: How ordinary people become monsters ... or heroes in English

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Philosophers, dramatists, theologians

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have grappled with this question for centuries:

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what makes people go wrong?

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Interestingly, I asked this question when I was a little kid.

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When I was a kid growing up in the South Bronx, inner-city ghetto

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in New York, I was surrounded by evil,

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as all kids are who grew up in an inner city.

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And I had friends who were really good kids,

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who lived out the Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde scenario -- Robert Louis Stevenson.

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That is, they took drugs, got in trouble, went to jail.

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Some got killed, and some did it without drug assistance.

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So when I read Robert Louis Stevenson, that wasn't fiction.

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The only question is, what was in the juice?

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And more importantly, that line between good and evil --

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which privileged people like to think is fixed and impermeable,

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with them on the good side, and the others on the bad side --

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I knew that line was movable, and it was permeable.

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Good people could be seduced across that line,

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and under good and some rare circumstances, bad kids could recover

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with help, with reform, with rehabilitation.

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So I want to begin with this this wonderful illusion

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by [Dutch] artist M.C. Escher.

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If you look at it and focus on the white,

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what you see is a world full of angels.

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But let's look more deeply, and as we do,

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what appears is the demons, the devils in the world.

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And that tells us several things.

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One, the world is, was, will always be filled with good and evil,

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because good and evil is the yin and yang of the human condition.

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It tells me something else. If you remember,

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God's favorite angel was Lucifer.

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Apparently, Lucifer means "the light."

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It also means "the morning star," in some scripture.

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And apparently, he disobeyed God,

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and that's the ultimate disobedience to authority.

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And when he did, Michael, the archangel, was sent

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to kick him out of heaven along with the other fallen angels.

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And so Lucifer descends into hell, becomes Satan,

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becomes the devil, and the force of evil in the universe begins.

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Paradoxically, it was God who created hell as a place to store evil.

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He didn't do a good job of keeping it there though.

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So, this arc of the cosmic transformation

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of God's favorite angel into the Devil,

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for me, sets the context for understanding human beings

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who are transformed from good, ordinary people

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into perpetrators of evil.

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So the Lucifer effect, although it focuses on the negatives --

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the negatives that people can become,

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not the negatives that people are --

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leads me to a psychological definition. Evil is the exercise of power.

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And that's the key: it's about power.

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To intentionally harm people psychologically,

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to hurt people physically, to destroy people mortally, or ideas,

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and to commit crimes against humanity.

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If you Google "evil," a word that should surely have withered by now,

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you come up with 136 million hits in a third of a second.

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A few years ago -- I am sure all of you were shocked, as I was,

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with the revelation of American soldiers

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abusing prisoners in a strange place

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in a controversial war, Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

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And these were men and women

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who were putting prisoners through unbelievable humiliation.

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I was shocked, but I wasn't surprised,

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because I had seen those same visual parallels

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when I was the prison superintendent of the Stanford Prison Study.

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Immediately the Bush administration military said ... what?

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What all administrations say when there's a scandal.

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"Don't blame us. It's not the system. It's the few bad apples,

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the few rogue soldiers."

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My hypothesis is, American soldiers are good, usually.

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Maybe it was the barrel that was bad.

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But how am I going to -- how am I going to deal with that hypothesis?

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I became an expert witness

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for one of the guards, Sergeant Chip Frederick,

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and in that position, I had access to the dozen investigative reports.

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I had access to him. I could study him,

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have him come to my home, get to know him,

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do psychological analysis to see, was he a good apple or bad apple.

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And thirdly, I had access to all of the 1,000 pictures

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that these soldiers took.

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These pictures are of a violent or sexual nature.

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All of them come from the cameras of American soldiers.

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Because everybody has a digital camera or cell phone camera,

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they took pictures of everything. More than 1,000.

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And what I've done is I organized them into various categories.

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But these are by United States military police, army reservists.

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They are not soldiers prepared for this mission at all.

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And it all happened in a single place, Tier 1-A, on the night shift.

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Why? Tier 1-A was the center for military intelligence.

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It was the interrogation hold. The CIA was there.

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Interrogators from Titan Corporation, all there,

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and they're getting no information about the insurgency.

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So they're going to put pressure on these soldiers,

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military police, to cross the line,

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give them permission to break the will of the enemy,

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to prepare them for interrogation, to soften them up,

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to take the gloves off. Those are the euphemisms,

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and this is how it was interpreted.

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Let's go down to that dungeon.

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(Camera shutter)

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(Thuds)

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(Camera shutter)

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(Thuds)

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(Breathing)

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(Bells)

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So, pretty horrific.

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That's one of the visual illustrations of evil.

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And it should not have escaped you that

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the reason I paired the prisoner with his arms out

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with Leonardo da Vinci's ode to humanity

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is that that prisoner was mentally ill.

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That prisoner covered himself with shit every day,

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and they used to have to roll him in dirt so he wouldn't stink.

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But the guards ended up calling him "Shit Boy."

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What was he doing in that prison

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rather than in some mental institution?

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In any event, here's former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

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He comes down and says, "I want to know, who is responsible?

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Who are the bad apples?" Well, that's a bad question.

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You have to reframe it and ask, "What is responsible?"

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Because "what" could be the who of people,

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but it could also be the what of the situation,

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and obviously that's wrongheaded.

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So how do psychologists go about understanding

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such transformations of human character,

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if you believe that they were good soldiers

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before they went down to that dungeon?

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There are three ways. The main way is -- it's called dispositional.

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We look at what's inside of the person, the bad apples.

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This is the foundation of all of social science,

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the foundation of religion, the foundation of war.

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Social psychologists like me come along and say, "Yeah,

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people are the actors on the stage,

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but you'll have to be aware of what that situation is.

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Who are the cast of characters? What's the costume?

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Is there a stage director?"

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And so we're interested in, what are the external factors

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around the individual -- the bad barrel?

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And social scientists stop there, and they miss the big point

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that I discovered when I became an expert witness for Abu Ghraib.

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The power is in the system.

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The system creates the situation that corrupts the individuals,

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and the system is the legal, political, economic, cultural background.

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And this is where the power is of the bad-barrel makers.

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So if you want to change a person, you've got to change the situation.

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If you want to change the situation,

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you've got to know where the power is, in the system.

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So the Lucifer effect involves understanding

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human character transformations with these three factors.

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And it's a dynamic interplay.

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What do the people bring into the situation?

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What does the situation bring out of them?

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And what is the system that creates and maintains that situation?

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So my book, "The Lucifer Effect," recently published, is about,

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how do you understand how good people turn evil?

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And it has a lot of detail

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about what I'm going to talk about today.

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So Dr. Z's "Lucifer Effect," although it focuses on evil,

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really is a celebration of the human mind's

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infinite capacity to make any of us kind or cruel,

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caring or indifferent, creative or destructive,

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and it makes some of us villains.

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And the good news story that I'm going to hopefully come to

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at the end is that it makes some of us heroes.

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This is a wonderful cartoon in the New Yorker,

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which really summarizes my whole talk:

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"I'm neither a good cop nor a bad cop, Jerome.

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Like yourself, I'm a complex amalgam

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of positive and negative personality traits

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that emerge or not, depending on the circumstances."

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(Laughter)

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There's a study some of you think you know about,

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but very few people have ever read the story. You watched the movie.

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This is Stanley Milgram, little Jewish kid from the Bronx,

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and he asked the question, "Could the Holocaust happen here, now?"

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People say, "No, that's Nazi Germany,

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that's Hitler, you know, that's 1939."

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He said, "Yeah, but suppose Hitler asked you,

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'Would you electrocute a stranger?' 'No way, not me, I'm a good person.' "

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He said, "Why don't we put you in a situation

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and give you a chance to see what you would do?"

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And so what he did was he tested 1,000 ordinary people.

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500 New Haven, Connecticut, 500 Bridgeport.

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And the ad said, "Psychologists want to understand memory.

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We want to improve people's memory,

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because memory is the key to success." OK?

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"We're going to give you five bucks -- four dollars for your time."

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And it said, "We don't want college students.

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We want men between 20 and 50."

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In the later studies, they ran women.

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Ordinary people: barbers, clerks, white-collar people.

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So, you go down, and one of you is going to be a learner,

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and one of you is going to be a teacher.

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The learner's a genial, middle-aged guy.

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He gets tied up to the shock apparatus in another room.

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The learner could be middle-aged, could be as young as 20.

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And one of you is told by the authority, the guy in the lab coat,

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"Your job as teacher is to give this guy material to learn.

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Gets it right, reward him.

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Gets it wrong, you press a button on the shock box.

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The first button is 15 volts. He doesn't even feel it."

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That's the key. All evil starts with 15 volts.

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And then the next step is another 15 volts.

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The problem is, at the end of the line, it's 450 volts.

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And as you go along, the guy is screaming,

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"I've got a heart condition! I'm out of here!"

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You're a good person. You complain.

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"Sir, who's going to be responsible if something happens to him?"

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The experimenter says, "Don't worry, I will be responsible.

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Continue, teacher."

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And the question is, who would go all the way to 450 volts?

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You should notice here, when it gets up to 375,

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it says, "Danger. Severe Shock."

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When it gets up to here, there's "XXX" -- the pornography of power.

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(Laughter)

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So Milgram asks 40 psychiatrists,

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"What percent of American citizens would go to the end?"

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They said only one percent. Because that's sadistic behavior,

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and we know, psychiatry knows, only one percent of Americans are sadistic.

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OK. Here's the data. They could not be more wrong.

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Two thirds go all the way to 450 volts. This was just one study.

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Milgram did more than 16 studies. And look at this.

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In study 16, where you see somebody like you go all the way,

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90 percent go all the way. In study five, if you see people rebel, 90 percent rebel.

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What about women? Study 13 -- no different than men.

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So Milgram is quantifying evil as the willingness of people

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to blindly obey authority, to go all the way to 450 volts.

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And it's like a dial on human nature.

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A dial in a sense that you can make almost everybody totally obedient,

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down to the majority, down to none.

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So what are the external parallels? For all research is artificial.

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What's the validity in the real world?

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912 American citizens committed suicide or were murdered

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by family and friends in Guyana jungle in 1978,

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because they were blindly obedient to this guy, their pastor --

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not their priest -- their pastor, Reverend Jim Jones.

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He persuaded them to commit mass suicide.

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And so, he's the modern Lucifer effect,

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a man of God who becomes the Angel of Death.

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Milgram's study is all about individual authority to control people.

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Most of the time, we are in institutions,

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so the Stanford Prison Study is a study of the power of institutions

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to influence individual behavior.

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Interestingly, Stanley Milgram and I were in the same high school class

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in James Monroe in the Bronx, 1954.

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So this study, which I did

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with my graduate students, especially Craig Haney --

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we also began work with an ad.

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We didn't have money, so we had a cheap, little ad,

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but we wanted college students for a study of prison life.

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75 people volunteered, took personality tests.

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We did interviews. Picked two dozen:

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the most normal, the most healthy.

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Randomly assigned them to be prisoner and guard.

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So on day one, we knew we had good apples.

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I'm going to put them in a bad situation.

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And secondly, we know there's no difference

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between the boys who are going to be guards

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and the boys who are going to be prisoners.

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The kids who were going to be prisoners,

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we said, "Wait at home in the dormitories. The study will begin Sunday."

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We didn't tell them

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that the city police were going to come and do realistic arrests.

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(Video) Student: A police car pulls up in front, and a cop comes to the front door,

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and knocks, and says he's looking for me.

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So they, right there, you know, they took me out the door,

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they put my hands against the car.

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It was a real cop car, it was a real policeman,

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and there were real neighbors in the street,

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who didn't know that this was an experiment.

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And there was cameras all around and neighbors all around.

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They put me in the car, then they drove me around Palo Alto.

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They took me to the police station,

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the basement of the police station. Then they put me in a cell.

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I was the first one to be picked up, so they put me in a cell,

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which was just like a room with a door with bars on it.

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You could tell it wasn't a real jail.

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They locked me in there, in this degrading little outfit.

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They were taking this experiment too seriously.

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Philip Zimbardo: Here are the prisoners who are going to be dehumanized.

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They're going to become numbers.

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Here are the guards with the symbols of power and anonymity.

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Guards get prisoners

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to clean the toilet bowls out with their bare hands,

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to do other humiliating tasks.

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They strip them naked. They sexually taunt them.

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They begin to do degrading activities,

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like having them simulate sodomy.

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You saw simulating fellatio in soldiers in Abu Ghraib.

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My guards did it in five days. The stress reaction was so extreme

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that normal kids we picked because they were healthy

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had breakdowns within 36 hours.

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The study ended after six days, because it was out of control.

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Five kids had emotional breakdowns.

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Does it make a difference if warriors go to battle

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changing their appearance or not?

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Does it make a difference if they're anonymous,

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in how they treat their victims?

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We know in some cultures, they go to war,

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they don't change their appearance.

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In other cultures, they paint themselves like "Lord of the Flies."

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In some, they wear masks.

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In many, soldiers are anonymous in uniform.

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So this anthropologist, John Watson, found

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23 cultures that had two bits of data.

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Do they change their appearance? 15.

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Do they kill, torture, mutilate? 13.

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If they don't change their appearance,

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only one of eight kills, tortures or mutilates.

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The key is in the red zone.

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If they change their appearance,

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12 of 13 -- that's 90 percent -- kill, torture, mutilate.

tedtalks 16:23
16:24

And that's the power of anonymity.

tedtalks 16:24
16:26

So what are the seven social processes

tedtalks 16:26
16:28

that grease the slippery slope of evil?

tedtalks 16:28
16:30

Mindlessly taking the first small step.

tedtalks 16:30
16:33

Dehumanization of others. De-individuation of Self.

tedtalks 16:33
16:36

Diffusion of personal responsibility. Blind obedience to authority.

tedtalks 16:37
16:38

Uncritical conformity to group norms.

tedtalks 16:38
16:41

Passive tolerance to evil through inaction or indifference.

tedtalks 16:42
16:44

And it happens when you're in a new or unfamiliar situation.

tedtalks 16:44
16:46

Your habitual response patterns don't work.

tedtalks 16:47
16:49

Your personality and morality are disengaged.

tedtalks 16:49
16:52

"Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer;

tedtalks 16:52
16:55

nothing more difficult than understanding him," Dostoyevksy tells us.

tedtalks 16:55
16:59

Understanding is not excusing. Psychology is not excuse-iology.

tedtalks 17:00
17:01

So social and psychological research reveals

tedtalks 17:01
17:05

how ordinary, good people can be transformed without the drugs.

tedtalks 17:05
17:08

You don't need it. You just need the social-psychological processes.

tedtalks 17:08
17:12

Real world parallels? Compare this with this.

tedtalks 17:14
17:16

James Schlesinger -- and I'm going to have to end with this -- says,

tedtalks 17:16
17:18

"Psychologists have attempted to understand how and why

tedtalks 17:19
17:21

individuals and groups who usually act humanely

tedtalks 17:21
17:24

can sometimes act otherwise in certain circumstances."

tedtalks 17:25
17:26

That's the Lucifer effect.

tedtalks 17:26
17:28

And he goes on to say, "The landmark Stanford study

tedtalks 17:28
17:32

provides a cautionary tale for all military operations."

tedtalks 17:32
17:34

If you give people power without oversight,

tedtalks 17:35
17:38

it's a prescription for abuse. They knew that, and let that happen.

tedtalks 17:38
17:43

So another report, an investigative report by General Fay,

tedtalks 17:43
17:45

says the system is guilty. And in this report,

tedtalks 17:45
17:48

he says it was the environment that created Abu Ghraib,

tedtalks 17:48
17:50

by leadership failures that contributed

tedtalks 17:50
17:51

to the occurrence of such abuse,

tedtalks 17:51
17:53

and the fact that it remained undiscovered

tedtalks 17:53
17:55

by higher authorities for a long period of time.

tedtalks 17:55
17:59

Those abuses went on for three months. Who was watching the store?

tedtalks 17:59
18:01

The answer is nobody, and, I think, nobody on purpose.

tedtalks 18:02
18:03

He gave the guards permission to do those things,

tedtalks 18:03
18:06

and they knew nobody was ever going to come down to that dungeon.

tedtalks 18:06
18:09

So you need a paradigm shift in all of these areas.

tedtalks 18:09
18:11

The shift is away from the medical model

tedtalks 18:11
18:13

that focuses only on the individual.

tedtalks 18:13
18:15

The shift is toward a public health model

tedtalks 18:16
18:19

that recognizes situational and systemic vectors of disease.

tedtalks 18:19
18:23

Bullying is a disease. Prejudice is a disease. Violence is a disease.

tedtalks 18:23
18:25

And since the Inquisition, we've been dealing with problems

tedtalks 18:25
18:28

at the individual level. And you know what? It doesn't work.

tedtalks 18:28
18:31

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says, "The line between good and evil

tedtalks 18:31
18:33

cuts through the heart of every human being."

tedtalks 18:33
18:35

That means that line is not out there.

tedtalks 18:35
18:38

That's a decision that you have to make. That's a personal thing.

tedtalks 18:38
18:41

So I want to end very quickly on a positive note.

tedtalks 18:41
18:43

Heroism as the antidote to evil,

tedtalks 18:44
18:45

by promoting the heroic imagination,

tedtalks 18:45
18:48

especially in our kids, in our educational system.

tedtalks 18:48
18:50

We want kids to think, I'm the hero in waiting,

tedtalks 18:50
18:52

waiting for the right situation to come along,

tedtalks 18:53
18:54

and I will act heroically.

tedtalks 18:54
18:56

My whole life is now going to focus away from evil --

tedtalks 18:56
18:59

that I've been in since I was a kid -- to understanding heroes.

tedtalks 18:59
19:01

Banality of heroism

tedtalks 19:01
19:03

is, it's ordinary people who do heroic deeds.

tedtalks 19:03
19:06

It's the counterpoint to Hannah Arendt's "Banality of Evil."

tedtalks 19:06
19:09

Our traditional societal heroes are wrong,

tedtalks 19:09
19:10

because they are the exceptions.

tedtalks 19:10
19:12

They organize their whole life around this.

tedtalks 19:12
19:13

That's why we know their names.

tedtalks 19:13
19:15

And our kids' heroes are also role models for them,

tedtalks 19:15
19:17

because they have supernatural talents.

tedtalks 19:18
19:20

We want our kids to realize most heroes are everyday people,

tedtalks 19:20
19:24

and the heroic act is unusual. This is Joe Darby.

tedtalks 19:24
19:26

He was the one that stopped those abuses you saw,

tedtalks 19:26
19:28

because when he saw those images,

tedtalks 19:28
19:31

he turned them over to a senior investigating officer.

tedtalks 19:31
19:34

He was a low-level private, and that stopped it. Was he a hero? No.

tedtalks 19:35
19:38

They had to put him in hiding, because people wanted to kill him,

tedtalks 19:38
19:39

and then his mother and his wife.

tedtalks 19:39
19:41

For three years, they were in hiding.

tedtalks 19:41
19:44

This is the woman who stopped the Stanford Prison Study.

tedtalks 19:44
19:47

When I said it got out of control, I was the prison superintendent.

tedtalks 19:47
19:50

I didn't know it was out of control. I was totally indifferent.

tedtalks 19:50
19:52

She came down, saw that madhouse and said,

tedtalks 19:52
19:55

"You know what, it's terrible what you're doing to those boys.

tedtalks 19:55
19:56

They're not prisoners, they're not guards,

tedtalks 19:56
19:58

they're boys, and you are responsible."

tedtalks 19:59
20:01

And I ended the study the next day.

tedtalks 20:01
20:03

The good news is I married her the next year.

tedtalks 20:03
20:06

(Laughter)

tedtalks 20:06
20:13

(Applause)

tedtalks 20:13
20:15

I just came to my senses, obviously.

tedtalks 20:15
20:17

So situations have the power to do, through --

tedtalks 20:19
20:20

but the point is, this is the same situation

tedtalks 20:20
20:24

that can inflame the hostile imagination in some of us,

tedtalks 20:24
20:26

that makes us perpetrators of evil,

tedtalks 20:26
20:29

can inspire the heroic imagination in others. It's the same situation.

tedtalks 20:30
20:31

And you're on one side or the other.

tedtalks 20:31
20:33

Most people are guilty of the evil of inaction,

tedtalks 20:33
20:36

because your mother said, "Don't get involved. Mind your own business."

tedtalks 20:36
20:39

And you have to say, "Mama, humanity is my business."

tedtalks 20:39
20:41

So the psychology of heroism is -- we're going to end in a moment --

tedtalks 20:41
20:45

how do we encourage children in new hero courses,

tedtalks 20:45
20:48

that I'm working with Matt Langdon -- he has a hero workshop --

tedtalks 20:48
20:51

to develop this heroic imagination, this self-labeling,

tedtalks 20:51
20:54

"I am a hero in waiting," and teach them skills.

tedtalks 20:54
20:56

To be a hero, you have to learn to be a deviant,

tedtalks 20:57
20:59

because you're always going against the conformity of the group.

tedtalks 20:59
21:03

Heroes are ordinary people whose social actions are extraordinary. Who act.

tedtalks 21:03
21:05

The key to heroism is two things.

tedtalks 21:05
21:07

A: you've got to act when other people are passive.

tedtalks 21:08
21:11

B: you have to act socio-centrically, not egocentrically.

tedtalks 21:11
21:13

And I want to end with the story that some of you know,

tedtalks 21:13
21:15

about Wesley Autrey, New York subway hero.

tedtalks 21:15
21:17

Fifty-year-old African-American construction worker.

tedtalks 21:17
21:19

He's standing on a subway in New York.

tedtalks 21:19
21:20

A white guy falls on the tracks.

tedtalks 21:20
21:23

The subway train is coming. There's 75 people there.

tedtalks 21:23
21:24

You know what? They freeze.

tedtalks 21:24
21:26

He's got a reason not to get involved.

tedtalks 21:26
21:28

He's black, the guy's white, and he's got two little kids.

tedtalks 21:29
21:30

Instead, he gives his kids to a stranger,

tedtalks 21:30
21:33

jumps on the tracks, puts the guy between the tracks,

tedtalks 21:33
21:35

lies on him, the subway goes over him.

tedtalks 21:35
21:38

Wesley and the guy -- 20 and a half inches height.

tedtalks 21:39
21:41

The train clearance is 21 inches.

tedtalks 21:41
21:43

A half an inch would have taken his head off.

tedtalks 21:44
21:47

And he said, "I did what anyone could do,"

tedtalks 21:47
21:48

no big deal to jump on the tracks.

tedtalks 21:48
21:52

And the moral imperative is "I did what everyone should do."

tedtalks 21:52
21:54

And so one day, you will be in a new situation.

tedtalks 21:55
21:57

Take path one, you're going to be a perpetrator of evil.

tedtalks 21:57
22:00

Evil, meaning you're going to be Arthur Andersen.

tedtalks 22:00
22:02

You're going to cheat, or you're going to allow bullying.

tedtalks 22:02
22:04

Path two, you become guilty of the evil of passive inaction.

tedtalks 22:05
22:06

Path three, you become a hero.

tedtalks 22:06
22:09

The point is, are we ready to take the path

tedtalks 22:09
22:11

to celebrating ordinary heroes,

tedtalks 22:11
22:13

waiting for the right situation to come along

tedtalks 22:13
22:15

to put heroic imagination into action?

tedtalks 22:15
22:18

Because it may only happen once in your life,

tedtalks 22:19
22:20

and when you pass it by, you'll always know,

tedtalks 22:20
22:23

I could have been a hero and I let it pass me by.

tedtalks 22:23
22:25

So the point is thinking it and then doing it.

tedtalks 22:25
22:28

So I want to thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

tedtalks 22:28
22:31

Let's oppose the power of evil systems at home and abroad,

tedtalks 22:31
22:33

and let's focus on the positive.

tedtalks 22:33
22:36

Advocate for respect of personal dignity, for justice and peace,

tedtalks 22:36
22:38

which sadly our administration has not been doing.

tedtalks 22:38
22:39

Thanks so much.

tedtalks 22:39
22:52

(Applause)