Can Heroism Be Taught?

Can modern science help us to create heroes? That’s the lofty question behind the Heroic Imagination Project, a new nonprofit started by Stanford psychologist Phil Zimbardo.

The goal of the Heroic Imagination Project is simple: to put decades of experimental research to use in training the next generation of exemplary Americans, churning out good guys with the same efficiency that gangs and terrorist groups produce bad guys. At first glance, this seems like a slightly absurd endeavor. Heroism, after all, isn’t supposed to be a teachable trait. We assume that people like Gandhi or Rosa Parks or the 9/11 hero Todd Beamer have some intangible quality that the rest of us lack. When we get scared and selfish, these brave souls find a way to act, to speak out, to help others in need. That’s why they’re heroes. Mr. Zimbardo rejects this view.

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