Kris Leppien-Christensen, PhD, was driving his wife and then-5-year-old son home late one night when he saw a bicyclist crash on the sidewalk. “It was in a sketchy part
of town, on a dark back road,” remembers Leppien-Christensen.
Ordinarily, he might have been too wary to stop and help.
But Leppien-Christensen, a psychology professor at
Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., had just been
teaching his students about the bystander effect — the tendency
to watch and wait for someone else to act during a dangerous
situation — as part of an innovative educational program called
the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP).
That experience prompted him to stop the car, lock his
family safely inside with a cell phone and ask the bicyclist if
he was OK. Seeing the man was injured, Leppien-Christensen
called 911, but the man rode off before the ambulance arrived.
“It ended up he was inebriated,” says Leppien-Christensen. “ I
think he just wanted to get on his way.”
Still, Leppien-Christensen was glad he stopped.
“ I can’t say I wouldn’t have done something before, but
having been a part of the Heroic Imagination Project definitely
prompted me to be more eager to intervene,” he says. “ I really
wanted my son to see that it’s a social obligation to intervene
when we can.”
Launched by psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD,
in 2010, the San Francisco-based HIP translates social
psychological research findings on conformity, obedience and
other potentially negative social influences into practical tools
teachers and others can use to encourage effective action in
Now Psi Beta, the national honor society for psychology
students at community colleges, is partnering with the project
to train students to deliver interventions in middle and high
schools. Members of APA’s Teachers of Psychology in Secondary
Schools (TOPSS) are also using project materials in their
The goal? To create what Zimbardo calls “everyday heroes”
who are willing to help others in need or defend a moral cause
despite potential costs and risks to themselves.
Standing up, speaking out
Zimbardo came up with the idea for HIP while writing his 2007
book “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding Why Good People
“ I began to explore whether the banality of evil had a
counterpart in the banality of heroism,” says Zimbardo, an
emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford who is now a
professor at Palo Alto University and president and director of
research at HIP. “If good people could be led to do bad things,
is it possible that ordinary people could be trained to do heroic
Putting that idea into practice is HIP’s goal. “Our mission is
to teach individuals, especially our youth, to stand up, speak out
and act courageously and effectively in challenging situations in
their lives,” says Zimbardo.
The project has developed eight core lessons that combine
academic content drawn from social psychology research with
fun activities such as viewing video clips illustrating various
scenarios. Topics include the bystander effect, conformity and
peer pressure, prejudice and intergroup conflict, positive self-talk in challenging situations and mindset, a lesson that draws
on the research of psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, to teach
students that their intelligence, talent and ability to overcome
challenges aren’t fixed but can be improved through dedication
and hard work.
Whether the audience is high school kids, college students
or young professionals, the basic framework of each lesson is
the same. Students begin by exploring how they think they
and others would react to a given situation, then watch videos
or listen to stories illustrating the psychological processes
that hinder or promote action. Next, students think of times
they have acted or not acted as they should have and decide
whether and how they need to improve their skills. They then
research to help students take action.
BY REBECCA A. CLAY