Heroes, Monsters, and Your Own Personal Monkeysphere

I had an interesting confluence of information thrown at me this past week. First, on Monday, I got an e-mail from one of the organizers of FrostBurn. It was a gentle suggestion to check out the lecture on TED.com by Philip Zimbardo: How ordinary people become monsters…or heroes.

The gist is that it is relatively easy to get people to do unimaginably cruel things. All you need to do is to ask them to gradually increase the intensity of their behavior, and to absolve them of responsibility for that behavior. As has been demonstrated by the atrocities of history, nearly anybody can be party to this kind of behavior, except for a few: the "everyday heroes".

In response to that e-mail, someone else posted a link to What is the Monkeysphere?. It outlines the notion that our brains are only capable of dealing with a clan of about 150 individuals. Outside that group, everyone else is not even a person, just a thing in the world. The article argues that in general, people don't care about the outsider group except when they make a deliberate effort to be empathetic. I personally don't think this is true, but Philip Zimbardo's research seems to back it up.

Anyway, in Zimbardo's lecture, he says that anybody can be trained to be an "everyday hero". His method of doing so asks people to consider themselves "heroes in waiting" — that someday you may be called upon to act heroically. I personally use the guilt-based technique where I ask myself, "which course of action will make me respect myself tomorrow?" to elicit my best behavior.  Regardless, we agree that a core element is the desire to not go along with the status quo for its own sake, but to remain vigilant and question that which seems wrong.

Then on Tuesday, I went to The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) for the Books Sandwiched-In lecture. Douglas Lowry discussed his view on The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music by Steve Lopez. Lopez, a columnist, discovers a man named Nathaniel Ayers playing violin in the streets of L.A. Although he writes a column about this encounter, he is struck by this man and returns to him many times over several years. Ayers is clearly mentally ill, and Lopez tries to get him to use psychiatric services to discover how to experience joy.

Anyway, I just thought it was interesting that these things all seemed pretty related.