Most of us like to think we’re good people and that, if put in an unethical or dangerous situation, we’d do the right, noble thing. We claim assuredly that if given power, we’d wield it fairly; or that we’d call the police if we saw someone getting abused.
But study after troubling study shows that the majority of us, when put in certain difficult circumstances, would act in ways we’d later be ashamed of. The truth is, while on the fringes of society we can talk about saints and sociopaths, we are all capable of good and evil.
I had the pleasure of listening to Philip Zimbardo at a recent Neuroleadership Conference. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about good and evil. While you may not recognize his name, you’re probably familiar with his infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment where normal, healthy people cast as guards became sadistic authoritarians, while those cast as prisoners became hopeless and traumatized. The 2-week simulation experiment was cut short after just 6 days.
People aren’t born heroes. Our brains run on a 100,000-year-old operating that errs on the side of self-protection and suspicion. Scientists literally refer to it as negativity bias. Put in a threatening situation, our brain makes saving ourselves top priority.
While it may not be our default nature to act in others’ best interest, we can retrain ourselves. We can build a heroic brain and become the person we’d like to be — the person we claim to be. And when we act heroically, we improve our home environment, work environment, and communities. In essence, we improve the lives of everyone we touch, including our own.
Here are some essential hero-building steps:
1. First: acknowledge your fallibility. Ignoring our dark self self doesn’t make it go away. It just hides until one day in a weak moment it inconveniently emerges (like Mel Gibson getting caught in a drunken, racist rant, or a sanctimonious AWOL politician found Tango-ing with his mistress in Argentina). It doesn’t do us any good to label deeds, thoughts, or people as evil. Rather, know that any person is capable of making bad choices that can create horrible irreversible ripples.
2. Second, notice your ripple. Done anything you’re not proud of? Maybe you raised your voice at your child, or rolled your eyes in a meeting. Or maybe you just forgot to thank someone for their efforts. Stop shaming yourself (or making excuses) and get to work by first apologizing, and then doing better.
3. Third: start practicing small acts of kindness. You become what you practice. Put a Tibetan monk in an MRI, and you’ll see a brain that’s trained to tilt heavily toward compassion and kindness. But you don’t have to meditate to re-train your brain. And you don’t have to be anyone special to be a hero. We often think of heroes as extraordinary people doing big things. But, as Zimbardo explains, heroes are ordinary people acting selflessly to protect or improve the lives of others. Heroes take positive action, where others stand by and justify their inaction.
Here are some small actions that can go a long way toward improving others’ lives:
- Listen to someone without judgment.
- Compliment someone you care about (without expecting anything in return).
- Compliment a stranger (without expecting anything in return).
- Ask the cashier how her day is going…then listen.
- Give your change to someone in need.
- Talk to the shy person at the holiday party.
- When talk about someone turns negative, instead of piling on, say something kind.
- Stop and give a confused tourist directions.
- Listen to your partner, your child, your mother –anyone you think you know well — with genuine curiosity and wonder.
- Instead of getting angry or blaming someone at work when something fails, assume good intent, pick up the phone or walk over to them, and seek to understand their point of view.
- If you like to talk, keep your views to yourself in your next meeting and ask others for their opinions. Then listen without interrupting.
- Thank someone.
- Forgive someone you’ve held a grudge against.
- Forgive yourself.
- Admit your mistakes.
- Acknowledge your weaknesses.
- For every holiday gift you purchase, add a small (or big) donation to a trusted charity like Oxfam who will make the most of your gift so that it improves lives.
With practice, you’ll break free of your default inertia and find that acting positively comes naturally. You also run a serious risk of creating an engaging, trusting work environment where people are free to speak and act without fear.
— — — — —
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
— — — — —
“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”
- Joe Paterno
— — — — —
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied,
“The one you feed.”
Phil Zimbardo talks about his new mission: The Heroic Imagination Project
Check out our related post: How to Tell if You Work in a Fear Ridden Environment with to-do list for the courageous manager
We’d love to hear from you!
- What small gesture has made a positive difference in your life?
- Which small act will you begin taking today?
- What other small heroic acts do you recommend?