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PCC prof takes heroic imagination around globe

Curriculum: Overcome instinct and take action


Photo Credit: COURTESY OF HEROIC IMAGINATION PROJECT - Portland Community College psychology professor Vivian McCann (center) recently talked to a group of women in Tanzania about becoming everyday heroes by standing up to authority. McCann is a trainer with the Stanford University-based Heroic Imagination Project.Vivian McCann is convinced that nurses can be taught to stand up to authority figures who are cutting safety corners. She is certain that most of us can learn how to take heroic actions in everyday situations even while those around us do nothing.

McCann, a Portland Community College psychology professor, is a local trainer for the Heroic Imagination Project, an international effort whose purpose, according to its founder, is “seeding the earth with heroes.”

The origin of the Heroic Imagination Project is almost as fascinating as the work it does around the world. Phil Zimbardo was a Stanford University psychology professor in 1971 when he conducted what became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. He divided his students into two groups. Half were instructed to play the roles of prison guards, the other half were to act as prisoners.

Six days in, Zimbardo thought his experiment was going wonderfully, according to McCann, who later co-authored a college psychology textbook with Zimbardo. He was crowing to one of his grad students about the wonderful research. Everybody seemed to have forgotten they were college students. The students playing guards had begun sadistically abusing the student prisoners, who had started acting defensive, depressed and helpless.

The problem was, even Zimbardo had allowed himself to get completely pulled into the experiment, according to McCann. “His grad student looked at him and said, ‘This is wrong. What you are doing to these boys is unethical.’ She’s the hero of the Stanford Prison Experiment.”

Zimbardo called off the experiment. Five years ago he started the Heroic Imagination Project, convinced that the forces that led his students to behave sadistically and meekly 40 years before could be counteracted. He trained staff such as PCC’s McCann in an eight-step program he believes can get everyday people to do the right thing despite those social forces and the risk to their own well-being.

McCann recently returned from Capetown, South Africa, where she was teaching groups of students the principles of the project. She says the project recently began partnering with the California State University Program to teach the same principles to its education students — future teachers.

The last 40 years of research, McCann says, have showed that almost anybody can be compelled to act in ways they know are wrong.

“We all like to think we’re good people,” she says. “What inhibits us from behaving in ways that are consistent with that are specific sets of social forces.”

Some are more likely to overcome those social forces than others. Zimbardo has been tracking everyday heroes around the globe. He’s found that educated people are more likely to take heroic action than the uneducated, city dwellers more than rural dwellers, men more than women. And blacks are eight times more likely to perform heroic deeds than whites. In addition, people who have survived trauma are more likely to take heroic action than those who have not.

That doesn’t necessarily mean being educated or black makes someone more likely to become a hero. It might be that the educated, city dwellers, men, black people and trauma survivors have more opportunities to perform as heroes, Zimbardo cautions.

Nevertheless, McCann says research is clear on some elements of everyday heroism. And those elements might be precisely what University of Portland nursing professor Lorretta Krautscheid could make use of as she tries to instill moral courage in her nursing students.

“What it comes down to is obedience to authority is very powerful and conformity is also very powerful,” McCann says. “But research has shown all it takes is one person to step up and change the direction the wave is going.”

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF HEROIC IMAGINATION PROJECT - We all like to think were good people, says Heroic Imagination Project trainer Vivian McCann, who teaches about the cultural forces that keep us from courageous action.Krautscheid’s intimidated young nurses? They need to see other nurses, either in practice or in simulations, standing up to authority. “If they have just one person they can identify as, ‘This person would stand up and I want to be like that,’ they can model their behavior after them,” McCann says.

Another key element, according to McCann, is an ally. “If we had two nursing students there then the likelihood of obedience to authority would plummet,” she says.

The Heroic Imagination Project won’t turn everybody into heroes, McCann says. Some people will always be more inclined by their personalities to disregard risk and take action. But most people, she says, want to behave with moral courage. Teaching them about the social forces that keep them from doing so gives them a fighting chance.

McCann says the project already has been able to identify success stories — students who received training who later reported acts of everyday moral courage. A 16-year-old Oakland, Cal., student ignored the taunts of fellow students on a bus and aided a boy who was having trouble breathing because he had lost his inhaler. The hero, Philip Johnson, had the bus driver stop near a pharmacy, took the boy in for an inhaler, and then escorted him home. According to project officals, Johnson said he was simply re-enacting the lessons he had learned in a Heroic Imagination Project class.

McCann’s says one of her former PCC students, Alina Weisheit, wrote about intervening when she saw two girls beating up a third on a subway in Germany when nobody else on the packed train would help. Weisheit had received a modified version of an HIP lesson on overcoming bystander apathy from McCann while at PCC.

McCann isn’t surprised at the successes.

“One you’re educated you train yourself to press the mental pause button so you can act consciously instead of unconsciously,” McCann says.