Who’s in Power, the Situation or You?

In my one of my past posts, I spoke about the negative effect that labels have on mental illness. Let’s further the discussion, how much of an effect do labels, roles, and expectations have on people’s behavior? Philip Zimbardo, an American psychologist and professor, explored that particular situation in his famous Stanford Prison Experiment.

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prison and prison guard. It was conducted at Stanford University from August 14-20, 1971 in the basement of the psychology department. Twenty-four out of seventy males, who responded to the study advertisement, were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prison and prison guard. The experiment went beyond Zimbardo’s expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and subjected some prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted the abuse and harassed other prisoners for trying to prevent it.

The results of the experiment favored that the situation, rather than the individual personalities caused the participants’ behavior. Under this analysis, the results lined up with Zimbardo’s former high school friend Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience.

Reading and researching these experiments made me think of how self-prophecy can be brought about by unfavorable conditions. One example, there are unwritten expectations for children who live in the inner city to grow up to become gang members, drug dealers, and shady people in general. When children internalize these expectations, they are likely to become them and stay in their dangerous neighborhood rather than escape it.

In high school, there was a bodacious red-head whom many students called easy and a slut because she dated many guys, even though she didn’t sleep with them. I admit I called her names because everyone did it and out of envy. Growing up, she and I had friends in common, which often led me to hearing stories about her. People who were close to her told me she became the person that everyone expected, “easy.” I was surprised because I thought she would be the opposite since she was harassed so much in high school. If she was surrounded by more supportive and compassionate students, would she still have fulfilled her self-prophecy? Not sure.

Environment, as shown from the experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo, is a powerful force. There are people though, such as Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education, and Ben Carson, the first surgeon to separate conjoined twins joined at the head, who grew up in rough areas but became successful leaders.

If I was a participant in Milgram and Zimbardo’s experiments; would have I succumbed to the controlled situation? I hope not. As much as I rebel against the status quo and question authority, I wonder if I’m just a sheep like everyone else.

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