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."
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.