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Are Heroes Born, or Can They Be Made?

Is it possible we want to believe heroes are born so we can absolve ourselves from trying?

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. “We’ve been saddled for too long with this mystical view of heroism,” he says. “We assume heroes are demigods. But they’re not. A hero is just an ordinary person who does something extraordinary. I believe we can use science to teach people how to do that.”

The curriculum, which lasts four weeks and is targeted at adolescents, is rooted in decades of psychological research. (Mr. Zimbardo is best known as the scientist behind the Stanford Prison experiment, which demonstrated that even liberal-minded undergrads can be turned into sadistic prison guards.) After taking a “hero pledge”—research shows that public commitments boost rates of adherence—the “heroes in training” begin their education.

The first lessons focus on human frailties, those hard-wired flaws that allow evil to flourish. The students are taught, for instance, about the research of the psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose famous experiment in the early 1960s showed that ordinary people would blindly obey authority and give what they thought were strong electrical shocks to strangers. They are also warned about the bystander effect—our reluctance to help a person in need when others are around—and the prevalence of prejudice. It’s a crash course in all the different tendencies that lead good people astray.

After being “fortified against the dark side,” the student heroes are trained to be more empathetic. Most of these lessons revolve around perception, on becoming more attentive to the feelings of others. The students learn how to interpret micro-facial expressions—a fake smile looks different than a real smile—and practice listening to their classmates. Another important lesson revolves around the fundamental attribution error, a prevalent psychological bias in which people neglect the influence of context on behavior. “One of the main reasons we don’t help others is because we assume they deserve what happened to them, that they must have done something wrong,” Mr. Zimbardo says. “But most of the time it’s just the situation playing itself out. We teach people how not to blame the victim.”

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If you’re interested in this, you’ll like Leadership Can Be Taught.