How to become a hero with Zimbardo
How do you become a hero? This weekend, people in Nijmegen think about this during a conference with famous scientist Philip Zimbardo, creator of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Vox previews this event with organizer Nathalie van Gerrevink.
Nathalie van Gerrevink, former psychology student in Nijmegen, met psychologist Philip Zimbardo in 2013. Back then, she was an exchange student in America. Back then, she knew Zimbardo because of his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. ‘This is an experiment on how environmental factors can bring out the worst in people. Zimbardo told me about his new research, on how you bring out the best. His story stuck to me.’
Van Gerrevink put her enthusiasm about Zimbardo to use and shortly after that, she was involved in the Hero Round Table, a conference cycle inspired by the master himself. The goal is to carry out heroism. The conference this weekend, in Nijmegen, is the sixth world wide, and follows the tested formula: researchers, entrepreneurs, people from all kinds of organisations and local heroes come together to think about heroism. ‘It is not just talking, we also want to inspire each other to take action’, says Van Gerrevink.
That the first European Hero Round Table conference is in The Netherlands, is a good thing, says van Gerrevink: ‘we are a down-to-earth country, we think that talking about heroism is American, and dramatized.’ The goal of the conference is to take heroism of its pedestal, to show that it deserves a place in people’s lives. The Dutch tend to be modest, to not interfere, and think: ‘what does it matter if I do something?’. Van Gerrevink likes to see that change: ‘Thinking about the everydayness of heroism helps to bring in within people’s reach. No matter how small a gesture is, everybody is capable of making a difference.’
Every Hero Round Table brings local heroes on stage, the edition in Nijmegen is no exception. One of the speakers is Marinka Dohmen, driving force behind Welcome to Nijmegen, the Facebook page that coordinates aid for refugees at Heumensoord. Another hero is Johnny Kerkhof, recently graduated from Radboud University and active in the conference catering. ‘He is interested in sustainable food and makes sure that food that is disposed by others – for example tomatoes that are too small for industrial use – are used in the conference menu.’ There are plans to try this concept in university restaurants, says van Gerrevink. ‘This is a nice example of something that begins on a small scale, but can have great influence.’
Running and standing by
The wisdom that ‘everybody can be a hero’ is easier said than done, that is why there are also some scientific sessions during the conference. Zimbardo’s prison experiment shows the power of peer pressure, a mechanism that also applies to heroism. Or better: to the prevention of interference. A known example is when a group of people waits and stands by when someone is drowning. Van Gerrevink: ‘when you are aware of the factors that stop us from doing the right thing, it gives you the freedom to make different choices. So that next time, you do not just run or stand by, but you realize that you can do something and act on it. / Paul van den Broek