Monday, February 19, 2007

Who Are You?


Does the importance of identity and self-identity make any difference? In 1973 the ‘Prison Simulation Experiment’ gave a real insight into how the brain manages an identity. Male participants were recruited through newspaper advertisements, asking for student volunteers for a two-week study. Twenty-four suitable and healthy participants were selected. They were then randomly assigned to their role in this prison experiment as either ‘prisoner’ or ‘guard’ and a mock prison was set up. On the first morning, those allocated to be prisoners were unexpectedly arrested by local police and charged with felony, read their rights, searched, handcuffed, fingerprinted and taken to the basement prison. Upon arrival, prisoners were stripped naked, searched, deloused and issued with prisoner uniforms and bedding. Prisoners were referred to by number only. The guards wore uniforms, reflective sunglasses (making eye contact with them impossible) and carried whistles, clubs, handcuffs and the keys to the cells and main gate. Guards were on duty twenty-four hours per day, working eight hour shifts. They had complete control over the prisoners, who were kept in their cells, except for meals, toilet privileges, head counts and work.

After an initial rebellion had been quashed, the prisoners began to act passively and the guards stepped up their aggression each day. For example, guards had a head count in the middle of the night simply to disrupt the prisoners’ sleep. After less than 36 hours one of the prisoners had to be released because of uncontrollable crying, fits of rage, disorganised thinking and psychological depression. Three others developed similar symptoms and another developed an all over body rash after his ‘parole’ request was rejected. The whole experiment, which was planned to run for two weeks, was abandoned after just six days due to the prisoner reactions. One of the guards later said "I was surprised at myself – I made them call each other names and clean the toilets out with their bare hands". Zimbardo et al concluded that the study showed the power of identity, and the power of social and institutional forces can even make good men engage in evil deeds. In other words, identity is flexible and can be changed by societal and other external factors.

You may wish to try this identity exercise.
Bearing in mind the importance of identity, it is worth spending a bit of time exploring your own identity. Howard Martin said:
"Don’t ask the what the world needs – ask what makes you come alive and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

The exercise:
List all the elements you identify yourself with.
Then think about who you would like to be.
Then list the words you’d like to identify yourself with.
Then commit to moving towards this identity in your actions.

14 comments:

QUASAR9 said...

Hi Michelle, I saw that programme and indeed it was peculiar how soon things evolved, with those assigned as guards swiftly assuming their role and becoming like SS guards.

I understand it even happens at detention centres for asylum seekers - where guards view the 'residents' as criminals - and the residents (whether criminal or not) are forced into a culture of deceit - to try and 'beat' the system - which seems to be trying to beat them.

But that is not true only of prison guards. In every work environment you can tell where there are 'insecure' people in positions of power - by the abuses of said power.

Whether it be Consultants, Surgeons or managers in hospitals
Whether it be managers in the City or County Council

And they'll surround themselves with a clique of people or staff to uphold their positions -
and when and if confronted will reply (just like soldiers and nazis) we were simply following orders from central government or some other echelon in the hierarchy

This is often most evident in education and training - where people are expected to deliver a curriculum - which may or may not be relevant, suitable or adequate for some of the students or trainees in the classroom or group.
Curious discussion today on Special Needs Education and whether it is Central Government failing to provide funds or County Council failing to meet the SNE pupil needs.

"Don’t ask the what the world needs – ask what makes you come alive and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

That is True, change happens first by changing oneself. But if some individuals would have not stuck their necks out and protested at some of the worst Nazi excesses, maybe there would have been no WWII

Mind you I am nuch happier to see modern Germans occupy Europe without the use of tanks and guns, but rather with the success of their car sales BMWs, Mercedes, Audi & Porches, and the success of their hotel developments or villa complexes (holiday homes) in Spain, the Canary isles, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, ...

Maalie said...

> ask what makes you come alive and then go and do that

Like, seeing Tamara Rojo dancing in Swan Lake...

Ellee said...

I don't think we will see Maalie dancing the Swan Lake! But I take your point about how people are adaptive to situations, even negatively. I always absorb atmostpheres and have very strong senses, I would not survive well in such a controlling situation.

Dr Michelle Tempest said...

Quasar9, Maalie and Ellee thanks so much for your comments. I guess that if people do adapt to their social situation, then society should take extra care when it comes to role models and even more so for children - this links back to the previous eating disorders article.

Your comments are very much appreciated.
All the very best
Michelle

Big Brother said...

Hello, there was also the same type of experiment with a class of children in the seventies. Blue eyed kids versus brown eyed kids, where the blue eyed kids were told they were superior and given special privileges. The brown eyed kids were always being put down and told they were inferior, less likely to succeed. The children soon started acting the part. Even the very smart brown eyes became unsure of themselves, made mistakes, and soon were functioning at a much lower level.
Here in Québec, a teacher redid the experiment with her kids to teach them about discrimination. The whole activity took two days, one day it was the tall students who were the best and the next day everything was switched and it was the small students. The whole thing was filmed for a TV program called Enjeux and the interviews with the children were very touching.
This show had a special connotation here in Québec since, for the longest time, the school system was under the direction of the church and there was a bias (not to say a prejudice) against all left handed people. They would be forced to change hands to write and work in school and often physical coercion was used. (ruler on the knuckles, I know this sounds unbelievable but it true) The lefties were told they were the children of the devil, they would never amount to anything and when, in spite of everything they did well, they were often accused of cheating because it ws impossible for them to do well. I know that it scarred many people, and made their life a perfect hell. Many of them did finally turn out ok, just goes to show the resilience human spirit.
Yes I believe that society can change the image someone has, his very identity. What is sadder is when this is done to children in the name of some doctrine or belief, be it left handedness or skin colour or any other factor.

simon said...

what a fantastic quote!!

I guess thats why I blog about my life.. in search of the identity...

I feel I have too many things that make me feel alive. Music, dance, nature, my landcruiser troopcarrier camper ( sorry Jim), my push bike bike, Birding, bushwalking, my job (auctioneering).

Seeing friends return to an art form they had abandoned when younger.

Sitting on the moors in Shetland, watching a Lark ascend..then sharing a beer with a mate and listening to Vaughn Williams "the Lark Ascending"

Watching my 10 year old 'spot" Wedgetailed eagles and identify them...

Sigh.. So much to choose so little time! Life ain't no dress rehearsal.

Ju's little sister said...

Referencing back to the focus of most people's comments Dr M, >ask what makes you come alive then go and do that, are you able to refer me to any research done or being done on the effect of music on humans?
Because as far as I have discovered, there is very little in life that can give rise to more powerful emotion for me.
Cheers, JLS.

Michelle said...

Hi Michelle, i saw that same program. I was absolutely mortified by what i saw....left me with my jaw hanging.
Quasar9 raises an excellent point about detention centres. Its become a real issue here in Australia about the way asylum seekers are treated, many have committed suicide and self mutilation.

Peter Smallbone said...

The Milgram/Zimbardo experiments were repeated as part of a 2001 BBC TV programme called The Experiment. I remember watching it with interest.

Some of the conclusions are different to Zimbardo's, in particular the primary agency in people's behaviour (they argue that the individiual and group are more important than the assigned role).

http://www.psychology.ex.ac.uk/seorg/exp/index.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Experiment

Pete

Ami said...

Were the participants helped to deal with the after effects of the experiment?

It is an interesting experiment, and I wonder what would happen with older people whose identities were more solid and who had more life experience? What would happen with women? People who state a strong belief in compassion and whose actions demonstrate that belief?

I'm not sure this experiment conclusively demonstrates that fully adult humans have fluid identities. The subjects were young adult males who were self selected as not being fully involved in society because they had two weeks in which they could 'drop out' of life in order to participate in the experiment.

Dr Michelle Tempest said...

Thanks to Big brother, Simon, Ju's Little Sister, Peter Smallbone and ami - who all so kindly left interesting and insightful comments. I have not seen the TV programme regarding this test, so I shall have to track that down. To go from Big brother's comment about children to ami's about the elderly, it certainly does seem that the younger are more vulnerable to suggestibilty, and it would be very interesting to have seen what would have happened if the volunteers were older. Perhaps as we get older we do get wiser! Thanks so much for your comments - they certainly give enriched discussion about the experiment. Michelle

View from the Trekant said...

Fascinating thread - I love the quote about "coming alive for the sake of the world."

I want to know how to study those who resist molding themselves to fit external circumstances. What makes a Corrie Ten Boom or a Martin Luther King? Why are some Christians able to stand up to tremendous persecution - even unto death.

We know that most of us are weak and will fall in certain circumstances. How do you bulwark yourself against wrong-doing and stand when no one else is?

Praguetory said...

Hi Michelle, I think I can relate this to certain things happening in the political blogosphere at the moment. I don't know if you've been following things, but there seems to be certain people who are pathologising political "opponents" and rationalising dysfunctional behaviour. For example, I got a death threat the other day and it turns out that several others had very unpleasant and threatening comments to from the same blogger. A few weeks back this chap was just making barbs, but appears to be going gaga, based on his most recent posts and comments.

Jackal said...

I like the exercise.