TED | Philip Zimbardo: The Heroic Imagination Project

Posted on September 4, 2011


At HIP, we believe everyone has the potential to transform the private virtue of compassion into the civic virtue of heroic action, and we are dedicated to helping individuals internalize and express their ‘heroic imagination’ in service to humanity.

Phil Zimbardo and the Heroic Imagination Project: TED Blog exclusive video.


My new mission in life is seeding the earth with heroes.

1. Why do some ordinary people turn evil? We know a lot from research: dehumanization, diffusion of responsibility, obedience to authority, unjust systems, group pressure, power and control, moral disengagement, anonymity, etc.

But, when we flip the coin, 2. Why do other people become heroic? We don’t have answer, we only have conjectures. Is it leadership, ability, sacrifice, courage, knowledge, awareness of future, compassion, empathy, hero gene, oxytocin, opportunity?

What we do know is that the same situation that inflames the hostile imagination in some people, also provides opportunities for others to inflame the heroic imagination. Thus, there are few people that are heroes, and even fewer people who are evil.

Nevertheless, between the extremes of this bell curve, the general population does nothing, and they do it with no imagination at all. In that non-act, they implicitly support the perpetrators of evil.

All that is necessary for evil to persist is for good people to do nothing. – Edmund Burke

So in this bell curve, villains and heroes are the outliers. In-between them is the general population, generally passive and indifferent.

So, our job is two-fold. How do we keep them from being seduced to the temptation of evil. And how do we get them to join our “hero movement” to get them to go to the bright side.

In doing that, we’re going to fill our world full of heroes, and we’re going to transform the ego-centric “me” into the socio-centric “we.”

The H.I.P. (Heroic Imagination Project) is amplifying the voice of the world’s quiet heroes.

We believe that heroism is the antidote, not only to public indifference, but also to systemic evil.

Our new conception of heroism

  1. Democratize: Anyone can be a hero
  2. Demystify: Most heroes are ordinary, everyday people. Ordinary People, Extraordinary Acts
  3. Diffuse: Away from Solo Heroes to Ensembles, working in Hero Networks
  4. Declare: Make a public commitment to journey toward heroism (online) – to become a “Hero-in Waiting,” and then a “Hero-in-Training,” doing daily deeds of service to others while building heroic strengths and virtues;

Heroes must act!

H.I.P. will also provide research in this area, and have transformational leadership programs, media, and organizing a “heropedia” a living document that showcases and images personal heroes.

In a 2008 National Probability Sample of 4,000 Americans

  • One of five (20%) qualify as Heroes
  • Opportunity matters: Urban > Rural
  • Education matters: More Educated > non college
  • Volunteering matters: 1/3 both Heroic & Volunteers
  • Gender matters: Males > Females
  • Race matters: Blacks 8x > Whites
  • Surviving disaster/trauma: 3x more likely both H & V
  • All valid after controlling for education, SES (socio-economic status), and other demographic factors.

What the world needs now is more heroes.