Better Barrels and the Creation of (super)Heroes

Brooklyn Superhero Supply on Flickr
[Refill your superhero supplies on Flickr by sodapop]

This has been one busy, yet transformational, month for me.

It all started with my participation in TED 2008 in Aspen, Colorado. TED, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, stands for Technology Entertainment Design, and it is an invitation-based conference. It is also, bar-none, the most inspirational conference I’ve ever attended. Inspirational because each and every one of the speakers weren’t just talking about small ideas and weren’t just doing smart, interesting things. Inspirational because each and every one of the speakers were talking about BIG, earth-shattering ideas and doing incredibly world-changing things. And they all had incredible passion. Incredible. This, coupled with the fact that the attendees were hand-chosen as world-changers themselves made for a really transformative experience.

But the one drawback for me was, because of the prohibitive cost ($3000-6000+) of attending, many world-changers I know of weren’t able to be part of it. AND because of that barrier, a smaller group gets moved to the level that I was moved. I sat there wanting to take that energy and spread it to a wider group of people…especially people who may never get to be in that room.

Especially after a talk by Dr. Philip Zimbardo (otherwise known as Dr. Z) on The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Dr. Z’s basic premise is this: There are no ‘bad apples’, only bad barrels. Inside of each of us is the propensity to act like a hero or act like a villian. He has a great deal of amazing research to back this up. He was behind the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 that took a healthy, nice group of middle-class kids and put them under conditions that led to the kids playing ‘guards’ treating the kids playing ‘prisoners’ so inhumanely, they had to call the experiment off. The amount of time to the shut-down of the experiment? 6 days. Similarly, Zimbardo discusses Abu Ghraib as a site for creating a similarly ‘evil creation’ environment, leading everyday ‘nice’ soldiers to treat their prisoners with sadism and extreme cruelty and humiliation. The book cites multiple examples around the world, including the awful genocide in Rwanda, where people raped and slaughtered former friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers.

Just writing that paragraph emotionally kills me. But the evidence astoundingly points to the bad barrels theory. Zimbardo does not take the responsibility off of the apples in that barrel, but the evidence that ‘nice’ people can turn evil is compelling. The beauty of this theory is that it gives us a clue as to the conditions for the creation of evil acts, which we can then avoid, and similarly, gives us a clue as to the opposite conditions: the conditions to create heroic acts.

And that is when it dawned on me: what if we had a *camp to create heroes? What if I put together a (super)HeroCamp to not only create heroes, but to create heroes that create MORE heroes? If I could sit down with many of those people I was missing at TED and come up with a plan to build better barrels….what would happen? So, I set up the wiki page and tweeted my intentions, getting alot of instant support.

So, this August in Vancouver, BC, Canada, a legion of Heroes will gather around the idea to create legions of Heroes. We’ve picked a narrow area to start with so that we can really focus a program: education. Over the duration of 4-5 days, we will come up with a plan that is easily executable by legions of others and the materials (website, print materials, etc.) that can help anyone interested to this spread it further.

Or, that’s the hope anyway. :)

My new goal is to look at creating the conditions in as many places possible to create (super)Heroes and radically subvert those barrels that create villians. Ideas are welcome and your involvement is necessary. I know there are many (super)Heroes that read this blog. :)

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Categories: coworking, social capital

Author:Tara Hunt

Strategist. Researcher. Interdisciplinarian. Founder, Lime Foundry + Buyosphere. Author, The Whuffie Factor. Speaker. Mother. Karaoke lover.


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15 Comments on “Better Barrels and the Creation of (super)Heroes”

  1. Ellen Petry Leanse
    March 26, 2008 at 17:13 #

    Tara, great insights, as always. This Dr. Z conversation is always a hair-raiser for me. I find the research fascinating, but believe that he has abdicated some responsibility for the role of choice and free will in “moving the line” of personal accountability in his research. He speaks of the “barrel” as accountable for his personal shift as a participant (he most definitely moved beyond observer) in this experiment. I cannot let myself agree that the enviornment alone shaped his buy-in. On some level, he chose to play along with what happened, allowing the experiment to continue even when the conditions became reprehensible.

    An interesting piece of history on this experiment: the catalyst to its termination was a visit by a grad student who had become Z’s student (and later became his wife) who walked into the setting on the 5th day and was horrified by what she saw. Z has long said that it was her sudden (rather than gradual) exposure — like a frog being thrown into boiling water, to coin a rather harsh phrase — that allowed her to see the situation for what it had really become. Interestingly, this woman was a Quaker by upbringing and practice. Now. This Quaker practice of a “silent moment” (I know you know it well :-) ), in which to look within and way with internal feelings — I wonder whether that practice may have affected her perspective as much as the more confrontational “walk in on it” way that she first experienced the experiment. Would her moral compass have kicked in early in the process, when things started to go awry, had she been there from ground zero? My idealistic heart wants to believe so…and I have learned a lot by thinking about Z’s perspective vs. hers and the important insight all of us might gain about how to draw our lines internally, externals be damned.

    I had the chance to join Dr. Z. at a quiet lunch a few weeks back; a friend of mine had brought a small group together to hear him speak. I was greatly inspired by his hero’s project and the hope that this example can bring to students (including grade school kids)…this is real learning that we all need. However, I did not feel that he took sufficient responsibility for his role in letting the experiment get out of hand; I felt that the objective fascination with the affect that the project had on the lives of the participants reflected a scientific reserve that stretched well beyond my comfort zone. I did find him wonderfully open and non-defensive about this; in fact, he was very curious about the “silent moment” process and had some thoughts about ways to integrate that into current research. If the heroes project is the ultimate expression of his study, and if it teaches kids to learn young to listen to that internal voice — one we are not often encouraged to follow — then perhaps the end justifies the means. I’m glad that you brought the study up here; thanks for giving me the chance to share some strong feelings about it…

    best regards, Ellen

  2. March 26, 2008 at 18:26 #

    Beware of extreme statements.

    There are, of course, bad apples, who, in the best of barrels behave in a rotten fashion. In current psychological parlance, they are called psychopaths or sociopaths. Likewise, there are good apples, those who rise above the rottenness of their barrels and hew to moral soundness. Oscar Schindler comes to mind as an example, but there are plenty of others.

    Most of us, as Zimbardo points out, take our moral cues from our communities. This is not a bad thing. Although it may seem that morals, especially our own morals, are timeless and universal, one can find a time and place when just about anything was praiseworthy and another time and place when the same thing was condemned. Take suicide–now considered the one unforgivable sin by Catholics, but once considered the only honorable course of action for many in ancient Rome and not-so-ancient Japan. What is important about morals is that they bring a community into a state of harmony. They gain their power from being shared.

    I don’t mean to cast disrespect on the great moral leaders of history, from the Buddha on down to Oscar Schindler, but rather to say that their heroism lay not so much in their individual acts as in their power to shape their communities, and our own.

  3. March 26, 2008 at 19:51 #

    Hero Camp is an amazing idea! I would love to be involved in something like that. Perhaps round 2 in T.O. ;-)

    There is someone I’d love to recommend to you – I have a giant “marriage-bias” but I would love for you to connect to my wife Beth Allison. Beth is the Executive Director of a small non-profit organization that runs summer camps (I worked with her until I recently jumped ship to start my own business). Beth has a special gift for creating an atmosphere in which people, and in our case teens, feel comfortable enough together to communicate openly and with care for others.

    About 15 years ago when we were just starting as camp directors we were in a tough situation with a staff that was unused to our high expectations and who had been raised at camp in an atmosphere where the best way to get a laugh was at someone else’s expense. We knew that we wanted the amazing youth that we worked with to become better people because of their camp experience. We needed a way for them to just their own judgement in a situation and feel confident that we would support them. To this end Beth created the 4S’s Test.

    In order to do any thing at camp you must answer yes to all of these four questions:
    Is it Safe?
    Does it build another’s Self Esteem?
    Is it good Stewardship of the environment?
    Are you being a Servant to others?

    The amazing thing about the application of the 4S’s is it’s versatility. We have found that the staff and the clients of our camps have taken the 4S’s and applied them to many other situations in their lives. Now the 4S’s has been used by coaches with their teams, in residence at university by Res. Assistants, in managing the Student Services at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, ON by their Vice President, at camps around the world and so on.

    I give you this detailed comment because I believe that Beth has an incredible ability in working with young people and I think that these skills would be a great addition to Hero Camp.

    I’m trying to keep this short (honest!). I’m going to talk to her about Hero Camp … I just wanted to let you know about another person who would be an amazing addition.

    And, by the way, I haven’t been to the site in a while – I’ve been ingesting via GReader… it looks amazing.

  4. March 26, 2008 at 22:11 #

    I just love Dr.Z’s Talk . i saw a video of same at MIT World . you can find it at

    another setting which causes Lucifer Effect is Corporate Offices Full of Peer Pressure . you can probably do something about it by mean of HeroCamp. its a good idea . and please make sure to invite Scoble to Hero Camp and make him cry .it will be a BIG HIT ;)

  5. March 27, 2008 at 08:54 #

    Much less considered that the other comments, but perhaps useful nonetheless, if you need help wrangling things for HeroCamp, let me know. I’ve helped out with Barcamp Vancouver for the past two years (’06 and ’07) and we can rip together an excellent event.

  6. Paz Pino
    March 27, 2008 at 10:46 #

    Hey Tara,

    Interesting concept on creating heroes and I’m super hyped that it’s happening in Van. My boyfriend is a highschool teacher in an alternative high school dealing with high needs kids so this is definitely something we’d both be interested in being involved with and attending (I can think of some principals and superintendents that’d be interested as well) so please keep us updated.


  7. March 27, 2008 at 11:28 #

    Great sum-up of Dr. Z’s ideas. His was one of the most powerful talks at TED for me this year. Am delighted that HeroCamp is happening in Vangroovy – we’ve got a great community here and the surrounding area. Would love to help out!

    Cheers … Kate

  8. March 27, 2008 at 12:26 #

    would i have to wear spandex?

  9. Sharon
    March 28, 2008 at 11:22 #

    This is why in high school when my friends were are reading Hakim Bey and say ‘Yeah, yeah anarchy’, I thought they were ridiculous. We need cultural ethical structure, a society with laws, to make things obvious to us when things are not right.

    And in regards to HeroCamp – I already go, every week as a matter of fact. It’s called synagogue. Just sayin’….

  10. March 29, 2008 at 11:40 #

    Hi Tara – I was mesmerized by the “Brooklyn Superhero Supply” store as I do all my superhero shopping @ Costco in bulk and on super mark down – :).

    Anyways, dug a little deeper into the history of the store and I’m sure you may be aware of this – but I was totally blown away to find out that this is a front for a tutoring center based on a simmilar SF concept by Dave Eggers. Dave help put together a pirate store on 826 Valencia with the same concept.

    Anyways keep those stories coming – its awesome how many superheroes are out there that make super awesome ideas come to life.

  11. March 30, 2008 at 16:52 #

    Very interesting post. I actually just found your blog today, and have spent a good chunk of the afternoon poking around. I am intrigued by this HeroCamp idea though, and look forward to hearing what you come up with.

  12. April 1, 2008 at 08:29 #


    I have always been inspired by superheroes. As an illustrator, I have been “creating” them for years. As a fan, I am fascinated by their continued and unrivaled relevance to our world today, moreso than at any other point in their history save their creation during the late 1930s-1940s (although the superhero resurgence of the nineteen-sixties cannot be overlooked – another historical “moment” of great social, political and economic change.) What is it that spoke to us then, and speaks to us today, seventy years after the creation of the first bona-fide superhero?

    I believe superheroes are a reflection of us. Of what we can be. Of what we wish to be. Hope, optimism, courage, strength, honor. We could not create superheroes, nor would we relate to them, if we did not have these things within ourselves to begin with.

    And they remind us of that fact. Like a visual mantra. An inspirational affirmation in a red and blue cape and cowl.

    My wife Stephanie and I have long discussed how to utilize the inspiration and passion of superheroes and translate it into a real-world movement for change. To use the cultural tools we have been given to share a message of hope, courage, honor, and to inspire people to be the best they can possibly be.

    I think you have a great idea on your hands, and I would love to help in any way possible. Excelsior!

  13. April 7, 2008 at 16:37 #

    I love the idea of a superhero camp. When I first discovered creative writing in college– the first YA (young adult, tween) book I wrote was about a hidden culture within our world with people who carried various abilities that secretly inspired members of society into heroism. It was based on the idea that one person who is just supportive enough, just clever enough could spin a sort of “magic” around that made people believe in the impossible, and then reach for the impossible, and conquer it. Michael Jordan, for example, was not that great of a basketball player in high school– but who was the spark that made him keep at it? Who helped him achieve his impossible?

    There are so many things going on in the virtual space– especially for youth. Virtual worlds are offering kids a moment of powers/magic/imagination– empowerment in a fantastical space where they might break away from their real life limitations and do something fantastic. Find empowerment in knowing that there is a space where they can achieve success and explore what that means to them.

    I love Dr. Z’s statement about bad apples & barrels. Leaves room for choice, and if we build worlds online that allow kids to explore various virtual choices in fantastical story-based worlds? And then help present rhyme, reason… choices, consequencces, etc in epic form, then who knows? Maybe they will learn something and change their path in the real world?

    Meh. Or maybe I’m just too hopeful. Regardless, it puts a nice spin on the virtual environments at the moment, yeah? LOL.

  14. Matt Langdon
    April 8, 2008 at 16:10 #

    Phil Zimbardo just emailed me about this post and I just wanted to say hi and that I’d love to be involved.

    I’m going to read the wiki and see what you’re planning. I run a program called The Hero Workshop that teaches kids to be heroes. I’m also working on a curriculum for teachers that they can implement in the classroom year round. Phil is giving me feedback as that grows. He’s really passionate about heroism and is a good guy to have on board.

  15. April 11, 2008 at 18:29 #

    Bad barrels are definitely a factor, but I think that rather than turning people bad, they unleash the conditions under which the bad within us is more likely to come out.


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