Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies and Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment are arguably themost well-known social psychological studies to have affected the field of psychology and steeredpublic debate regarding human nature. The haunting images of the subjects “administering danger-ous electric shocks” and the degradation imposed by Stanford University students simulating prisonguards have raised questions about how ordinary people can be transformed into immoral evil-doers.Furthermore, these studies have also provided some understanding for seemingly inexplicable eventssuch as the Holocaust and Abu Ghraib.While much of the debate has centered on the issue of “how good people turn evil,” the fact that asmall minority of subjects (over 30 percent) resisted imposing harm on others was somewhat ig-nored. Who were the defiant subjects that showed empathy? What allowed them to break the normand become what Zimbardo termed “ordinary heroes”? Are there some circumstances that madethem act so extraordinarily or was it their unique personalities?A similar phenomenon has emerged outside the laboratory, in real life, among two different popu-lations: one in the Middle East and the other in U.S. urban areas. The first group is the small numberof Palestinians and Israelis who have chosen the unconventional path of promoting peaceful coexist-ence in spite of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike the majority of Israelis and Palestinians whowere exposed to terrorism and consequently tended to adopt political extremism and exclusionistattitudes, this unique group seems to have transcended this “natural” tendency to reject “the other,”instead becoming involved in nonviolent dialogue with their former “enemies.” The second specialgrouping is composed of ex-gang members who decided to leave their violent groups, adopt a peace-ful position, and risk their lives by becoming active in gang prevention in the areas where their for-mer gangs were still operating. Thus, it appears that these former extremists have defied their ownpeople and have chosen an antiviolence path, often at a significant personal risk and condemnationby those who were close to them: family, friends, and colleagues.This study focuses on identifying the nature and characteristics of members of these two groupsand exploring the underlying processes that led them to take this courageous path. It aims to decipherthe “psychological code” of former extremists. We want to discover if there is a common transforma-tional experience shared by most members in these two unique groups. How can we account for themental and behavioral switch from being a socially violent gang member
or even leader
to be-coming an agent for positive social change? Or from suffering hardships and abuse by members of agroup considered to be a national enemy to then advocating for reconciliation rather than revenge?Our interest is more than academic curiosity; we expect to develop effective anti-radicalization pro-grams derived in part from the insights gained from these deeper understandings of heroic youngmen and women in the Middle East and the urban ghettos of the United States.
We can identify three major theoretical perspectives that attempt to understand all human behavior,including dealing with violent ethnic or national conflicts: the dispositional, or characterological, ap-proach; the situationist approach; and the interactionalist, or systemic, approach.