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How to Turn Gang Members Into Ex-Gang Members

What makes some people act heroically and empathetic toward others?
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What is it that finally makes a gang member renounce his violent ways? Or a former Hamas extremist turn to reconciliation instead of suicide bombs? The answers are remarkably similar, based on a recent study from researchers at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

One of the study’s authors, Philip Zimbardo, is the psychologist behind the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which college students acting as prison guards quickly turned shockingly sadistic toward their fellow students. Though much attention has been paid to the question of what makes good people turn bad, 30 percent of the prison guard subjects actually resisted inflicting harm, exhibiting what Zimbardo would come to term “ordinary heroism.”

In this more recent research, Zimbardo and co-author Rony Berger, an expert in the psychology of dealing with terrorism at Tel Aviv University, identify the phenomenon outside of the lab: in two settings of extraordinary violence—gangland urban America and the Middle East of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—what makes some people act heroically and empathically toward others?

Like many of their peers, study subjects had rough early lives and experienced deep personal tragedy. But researchers found that these ex-gang members and extremists—a.k.a. "transformers"— tended to be securely attached to parents or other inspiring role models in childhood. Even more importantly, they had personal, meaningful encounters with the "other side."

One study participant was an Israeli Defense Forces lawyer assigned to prosecute a young Palestinian woman who had planned a suicide mission in Israel; the two women eventually became very close. As the lawyer put it: