Doing The Right Thing: Practice Makes Perfect?

“How could they let that happen?” That’s a sentence we’ve said a lot in the wake of the financial crisis. And it’s something we seem to be saying yet again in the wake of the Penn State scandal.

In spite of numerous findings to the contrary, most people believe that they would maintain their moral integrity, even under immense pressure in “heat of the moment” situations. Studies such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments and the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrate that when in an environment of “systemic evil” otherwise upstanding people cave into the current of unethical behavior.

Writing for The New York Times, Alina Tugind posits that “doing the right thing” may not be as automatic and instinctual as we would hope. The question: can “doing the right thing” be taught?

Psychology professor Philip G. Zimbardo thinks so.

Creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Zimbardo believes that given proper education and training, people can be taught ethical, and even heroic, behavior. His Heroic Imagination Project is an effort to raise awareness of just how powerful social and environmental factors are in influencing one’s moral decisions. Students learn about psychological experiments that demonstrate how easily we can be swayed by the crowd into perpetrating evil, and then role play making the “heroic” decision in similar situations. His hope is that practice – and heightened awareness – will make perfect, and that these classroom techniques will pay off in times of crisis.

Zimbardo is operating under a similar assumption as the Oath – that practicing making ethical or heroic decisions will encourage us to actually make ethical or heroic decisions. It is not a new idea – Aristotle believed that virtue grows like a habit through practice. The question is, can practice indeed pay off in the emotionally-charged arena of moral conflict? Is it possible to embed moral courage deeply enough into one’s social habits so that, when we walk in on the coach with a kid, or notice a colleague fudging the numbers, we are willing to speak up even if it means the end of our own career?

The Heroic Imagination Project is already being implemented in some California schools and Zimbardo hopes to expand it to the military and business worlds as well. If you know Professor Zimbardo, let us know. It would be good to connect.

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