How ordinary people become Monsters or Heroes

“…we know how easy it is for good people to become evil, but the question is: can ordinary people be inspired and trained to be everyday heroes? The answer is yes!” (TEDXROMA,2017)


Forensic psychology and criminology include a wide array of different topics regarding criminal behavior. From juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and criminality, intimate partner and family violence, mentally ill incarceration, special courts and jail diversions programs, to psychopathy, sexual assault and harassment, multiple or mass murders and modern terrorism. What do they all have in common? They all are committed by a single or multiple perpetrators. And why these people commit such cruel and terrible crimes? Experts study the underlying causes of these unlawful acts by trying to understand the biological-genetics factors, along with developmental and social factors that interact together in triggering criminal behavior. When considered in proportion, a history of trauma seems be an important predictor of such delinquent conducts. Often, we discover that the most ferocious serial killer was severely abused during childhood or that the social system completely failed to support him/her. Hence, this starts a sort of “self-fulfilling prophecy”, a vicious cycle in which the victim become the perpetrator. This reminds me of the Aileen Wuornos’ case. That was a perfect example of both infancy trauma and social failure. In fact, research highlighted the fact that delinquent’s women are more likely to have been abused in the past (Convington & Bloom, 2008). Of course, this is not always the case. There are some criminals that do not seem to have any traumatic experience, but rather a physiological and neurobiological predisposition. Let’s think for example about the criminal psychopath, with unemotional callous traits, lack of empathy, manipulative and violent inclinations (Hare, 2000). However, is there something more than trauma and biology that play a role? Is maybe human nature? Are we all both good and bad at the same time? Can we all become perpetrators in the right circumstances? How far our moral engagement and altruism go when we feel in danger or threatened?


As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says, “The line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being” (in TEDXTALKS,  2008). From a psychology non-conformist perspective, human nature is egoistic and antisocial, hence we needed to create social rules to avoid to prevaricate on one another (Hirschi, 1969). On the contrary, for social learning theorists, humans are basically “social creature”, whose nature is neither bad or good (Bandura, 1973). Hence criminal behavior, may initially be acquired by observation and association, but maintained only if reinforced (by internal or external stimuli) (Bandura, 1973). Within this framework, others argued that the key to understand human aggression and violence is in the power within the “system” (Haney, Banks &, Zimbardo, 1973). According to Zimbardo, the system creates the situation that corrupts the individuals, and the system is the legal, political, economic, cultural background (Zimbardo, 2007). In this context, the Lucifer’s effect involves understanding human character transformations through the interplay of two factors: the situation and the system. In relation to the deinviduatization of aggression theory, Zimbardo also argued: “Many people, perhaps the majority, can be made to do almost anything when put into psychologically compelling situations—regardless of their morals, ethics, values, attitudes, beliefs, or personal convictions” (1973, p. 164).


To conclude, in order to combat the “psychology of evil”, is necessary to promote prosocial behavior and individual responsibility (Zimbardo, 2007). This is when the concept of “Banality of Heroism” come into play (Zimbardo, 2007), namely promoting heroic imagination especially in the educational system. How can we apply this concept? Zimbardo created the Heroic Imagination Project (HIP), with the mission of training ordinary young people around the world in how to become effective change agents (Zimbardo, 2011). He says:

“We want kids to think, “I’m a hero in waiting, waiting for the right situation to come along, and I will act heroically(TEDXTALKS, 2008).




Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 1-26.

Bloom, B., & Covington, S. (2008). Addressing the mental health needs of women offenders. Women’s mental health issues across the criminal justice system, 160-176.

Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: a conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15(2), 99.

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval research reviews, 9(1-17).

Hirschi, T. (1969). A control theory of delinquency. Criminology theory: Selected classic readings, 289-305.

TEDXTALKS (2008, February). TED Talks-The psychology of evil. Retrieved from:

TEDXROMA (2017, May). Creating a new generation of youth super heroes | PHILIP ZIMBARDO. Retrieved from:

Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). Lucifer Effect. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Zimbardo, P. (2011). Why the world needs heroes. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 7(3), 402-407.



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