A young man is lying unconscious on a park bench. Many people walk by, with some looking but none helping. After ten minutes the man rolls from the bench to the ground, soaked by rain. Another two minutes pass before two young people have the courage to speak to him. The incident was staged and filmed with a hidden camera by the Hősök Tere Initiative, but even in real situations of danger people rarely intervene. This is what the Initiative would like to change, with the help of psychological instruments and “hero training”.
Everything began when Peter Halácsy, co-founder of successful Hungarian company Prezi, met Philip Zimbardo, a leading American social psychologist. Zimbardo, made famous by his Stanford prison experiment in the US in 1971 that highlighted the ease with which ordinary intelligent college students could cross the line between good and evil. Zimbardo engages nowadays in the research of heroes – a psychological area little researched before – and which asks, what kind of people are heroes?
Zimbardo is currently heading a movement for everyday heroism as the founder and director of the Heroic Imagination Project, a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting heroism in everyday life. With the help of Halácsy and a motivated group including social psychologist Gábor Orosz and project manager Kinga Aszalós, the training for heroes is also being developed in Hungary under the name Hősök Tere Initiative. To make the project popular, festivals, conferences and workshops are organised. Orosz and Aszalós explained to The Budapest Times why Hungary needs heroes and what things a hero needs to learn at training.
What kind of people are heroes?
Aszalós: In our terminology they are ordinary people who act upon the same basic moral values no matter what are the social circumstances around them. They are people who are not self-centred; they rather look out for each other. Of course we are obliged to help when the situation deems it necessary, since after all any of us can get into such a situation where we need help. However, it is not always easy to intervene. A hero knows in which situation it is possible to help, even if he has to cross certain social standards in order to do so.
Why do the Hungarians need more heroes?
Aszalós: When we look at history, the Hungarians are an extremely pessimistic nation. This is caused partly by the many bad things we had to endure through history. For that reason the Hungarians often face challenges with cynicism, scepticism and in general a negative attitude. This also shows in the rank of countries with the most suicides, where Hungary ranks third in Europe. In such a social climate like this an initiative such as Hősök Tere, which is independent of political players and is based on moral rules and scientific results of social psychology, can reach a great deal. The fresh perspective that it brings to the people can give them hope and show the positive side of things.
Orosz: Hero Training uses the scientific results collected by Professor Zimbardo in his Heroic Imagination Project. With that we can explain to the participants, for example, what the so-called Bystander Effect is: the more witnesses are present at an emergency situation, the less likely or slower the intervention of an individual person will be. We would like the participants to deeply understand this phenomenon and their role within it. During the training they can reflect on their own experiences and share them with the others. This should help to recognise a situation like this the next time they meet it and to break through the lethargy of a passive stander-by. We give the participants a five-step guide for what they should watch out for and how they should behave when they encounter a situation where everyone is just watching instead of helping.
We have developed a second module that deals with the growth orientation. It is based on the fact that most people think their skills in a certain area are unchangeable and given. For example: “I am bad at mathematics.” This is the statement of a person who has had a bad result before in mathematics. By having such a deterministic view about his skills he will probably also do badly the next time. For that reason, when we look at things from a growth-oriented point of view, a bad result only means that this person needs more practice and time before he can succeed in this area.
Do you need to be talented for that?
Orosz: Don’t get me wrong, we are not denying that talent exists. However, in order to be successful at a discipline you also need a lot of effort and training. We would like to show people that it is possible to develop themselves. This knowledge might look banal at first sight, but the participants of our trainings did find it very useful that they could look back and reflect upon certain experiences in their lives and put things that they have evaluated as defeat before into a new positive light.
What kind of reactions have the participants had so far?
Orosz: All the feedback so far was very positive and that makes us very happy. In addition it affirmed us about our goals and methods. We see a big potential in sharing this knowledge with as many people as we can. For that reason we would like to develop further modules and make our program accredited at schools.
Why do you think that you can accomplish long-term changes with your training?
Orosz: Firstly, our program is simple – we do not want to see grand heroic acts, only small benefactions, which are sadly not usual any more in our present society. We also make it clear that no one will become a “hero” overnight. It requires continuous practice and constant self-reflection. Additionally the researches have proved that the conscious knowledge of the presented mechanisms really helps to intervene in emergency situations faced later. Once you get there, it is not possible to go back being ignorant. We are planning to set up an evaluation system for the future in order to be able to measure the long-term effect of our training. It will show whether there can be any significant change measured after one year. This also has the advantage that we do not disappear fully from the lives of our participants after the training.
If there are some people who feel they would like to do something for your goals, how can they help?
Aszalós: We happily accept anyone who would like to be part of the project. On our website at www.hosoktere.org you can apply as a helper. We are looking for people with all kinds of backgrounds. Anyone can put down what kind of skills he or she can bring into the project and how much time he or she has for it. We organise regular meetings for our voluntary helpers, where everyone can get to know the others and everyone can find their place within the initiative. We already had 500 people supporting us so far as voluntary helpers. We are happy about financial donations too, to finance the education of further trainers. You can find more information about that also at our website.