For me, one of the most interesting and intriguing writers on personal identity and character is the US psychologist Philip Zimbardo. He was the creator of the notorious ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ which wrestled with the challenging question of human beings’ capacity for evil, but in a long and varied career has also explored the personal implications of our implicit attitudes to time and the psychology of social influence.
A reference to ZImbardo’s work came up again recently in Third Way magazine’s interview with new-atheist ‘naturalist’ philosopher Daniel Dennett (a very well-mannered, interesting and engaging interview, by the way – good job, Nick Spencer) who noted the value of Zimbardo’s recent project ‘Heroes in Waiting’, and attempt to discover and share what helps people resist evil and choose to do the right thing in the big and small things of life.
By nature, I am not a hero but a coward. I much, much prefer to avoid conflict than to meet it head on, and am often put off from sharing my thoughts with others by the fear of the possibility they might find my views (or me) ridiculous, boring or whatever. However, at quite a deep-rooted level I nevertheless rate heroism highly. Recently I was sorting out some old stuff of mine which my parents had found in a loft clear-out and brought with them when they visited. Amongst these things were a pile of 1980s ‘Commando’ graphic novels which in my memory were staple beach holiday reading when I was about 10-14 years old. Reading the stories again I realised how much these stories – often about overcoming fear, treating the enemy fairly, showing loyalty to comrades or resisting the temptation to duck out of difficult situations – had shaped by own values-world if not always my actions (perhaps second only to the Bible in influence on my pre-teenage self).
Having been out of fashion for the best part of 50 years, the concept of character is experiencing something of a renaissance at present, and Zimbardo’s recent work on heroism and resisting negative social influence offers a lot of parallels. With my ‘discipleship’ hat on, it also offers considerable food for thought to the contemporary church, in which if we were to be brutally honest, we – I – am often too scared to live the transformatory life which followers of Jesus are called to. (And it’s intriguing, given that I am not aware of Philip Zimbardo having any personal religious affiliation himself, that his Lucifer Effect website contains a theological blog written by two ordained ministers who clearly also see the value in Zimbardo’s work). If you’re interested to read more, here’s an article by Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo, on the ‘banality of heroism’.