Heroic Imagination / Hostile Imagination

June 19, 2009


Last night I had the pleasure of hearing the opening talk in the form of a Special Lecture given by Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Philip Zimbardo at the opening of the First World Congress on Positive Psychology in Philadelphia, PA, USA. Zimbardo is probably best known for his 1971 study known as The Stanford Prison Experiment, a simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment conducted at Stanford University in California in which the students who were chosen to act as guards quickly became sadistic and the study had to be cut short. He is a professor of social psychology, and his work has had a broad emphasis on everything interesting to study from shyness to time perspective, madness, cults, vandalism, political psychology, torture, terrorism, and evil. 

One part of this talk that stood out to me was his discussion of the need to celebrate heroism as an antidote and balance to the tendency of people to slip into negative acts, as witnessed in the above mentioned Stanford Prison Study. This can be seen as teaching values and behaviors that can override those negative tendencies which can operate in default unless options are available and known, something he describes as the Lucifer Effect.

He writes of this on his web site: ‘…trying to understand what about certain behavioral settings pushes some of us to become perpetrators of evil, others to look the other way in the presence of evil doers, tacitly condoning their actions and thus being guilty of the evil of inaction, while others act heroically on behalf of those in need or righting injustice. Some situations can inflame the “hostile imagination,” (italics mine) propelling good people to do bad deeds, while something in that same setting can inspire the “heroic imagination” (italics mine) propelling ordinary people toward actions that their culture at a given time determines is “heroic.” I argue in Lucifer and recent essays, that follow here, it is vital for every society to have its institutions teach heroism, building into such teachings the importance of mentally rehearsing taking heroic action—thus to be ready to act when called to service for a moral cause or just to help a victim in distress.’

The idea of hostile imagination and herioc imagination appeals to me. It affirms the fundamental importance of the imagination in knowing and offers practical application and example. What do you think about this?

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