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English 101: Personality vs. Environment

November 4, 2017
(The Driving Force Behind Our Choices)
The word prison is likely to conjure dark images in the mind of the average citizen. Criminals! Racism! Ah, I know, violence… Prison is undoubtedly a violent place, but what makes it that way? Do people make prison a violent place or does prison make people violent?
In August of 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo led a study meant to expound on the psychological effect of prison on both its prisoners and their guards. Dr. Zimbardo, who has long advocated the notion that “bad environment” impels “bad behavior” set out to spurn a conflicting theory that congenital personality traits are the main cause of the violence that occurs between prison guards and prisoners. Seventy-five students volunteered to participate in the study, and researchers selected twenty-four males, who appeared to be in the most physically and mentally sound health, then split them evenly int two groups—“prisoners” and “guards.” The prisoners were sentenced to spend fourteen days in a thirty-five foot basement of the school that had been sectioned off into 6’ x 9’ cells meant to hold three prisoners each. Dr. Zimbardo designed a model for the experiment which was supposed to perpetrate disorientation and denude the prisoners of individuality. He used the guards as a means of doing this.
“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is completely controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy… We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general, what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation, we’ll have all the power, and they’ll have none.” (Dr. Zimbardo instructing the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment.)
The experiment quickly surpassed Zimbardo’s expectations. After only one day, Prisoner #8612 flew into an uncontrollable rage, screaming and cursing at the guards. Dr. Zimbardo allowed this to occur for a lengthy period of time before deciding the mock-prisoner was indeed suffering and should be released. A short time later, cell #1 rose up in sedition and, despite being instructed not to physically harm the prisoners at the start of the experiment, the guards resorted to spraying them with fire extinguishers as they attempted to regain control. Researchers noted that as the experiment went on the guards became increasingly cruel and approximated that one third of them displayed veritable sadistic qualities.
Due to mounting ethical concerns, the study was brought to an abrupt end after only six of the scheduled fourteen days. Despite this, Dr. Zimbardo concluded that the participants had “internalized their roles” and that environmental factors had been the chief causes behind the disturbing abuses that had taken palace. Dr. Zimbardo’s methods and findings, though, have been widely criticized by others in his field. For example, Dr. Peter Gray is dubious of Zimbardo’s conclusions, citing the so-called demand characteristics of the experiment, which is to say, that the guards were instructed to behave a certain way for the sake of the study. Eric Fromm also disputes Dr. Zimbardo’s findings and asserts that personality does indeed play a role in people’s behavior while in prison.
I find Dr. Zimbardo’s experiment lacking, and Fromm’s statement leaves much to be desired. Both seem to be generalized sweeping statements based on little evidence as there are too many variables of prison life that were not considered, such as gangs, nuances between institutions in various states and countries, sentencing and cultural differences. There were also no interviews or studies done of actual prisoners and guards to be compared with the results of the experiment. In Zimbardo’s study, there was also very little said about the actual physical structure of the environment and how, for example, being locked in a tiny cell with two other men may have affected the prisoners mentally.
I have been incarcerated for 10 of a twenty-five to life sentence, and my conviction, along with the crime I was convicted of, was a profound contributing factor to the stress I felt, exacerbating my already negative world views and encouraging my raucous behavior. Couple this with being separated from my family and placed in a very small cell, and I was like a tiger plucked from the wild and placed in an exhibit at the Zoo, pacing back and forth, resentful of the faces that peered into my window. They did not need to tap the glass or yell at me; just knowing that they were there and in control of when and whether my door opened was enough.
As time has gone on and I’ve adapted to my environment and have matured emotionally, I have been able to open my mind to greater possibilities, such as the fact that negative situations don’t produce only negative results. For the first eight years of my incarceration, I hated prison so much and, with a lack of coping skills, lashed out similarly to Prisoner #8612 in the Stanford project. During my tenth year, I loathe prison as much as I did the first eight, but I’ve realized that going out of my way to create problems is a poor coping mechanism that amounts to nothing more than self-sabotage. More recently, I’ve used my hatred of this place to fuel me in a new, more positive direction, so that I can get out of prison. It’s not my environment alone that has caused me to change, but the ability to see something new in my environment and grab hold of the little bit of good that is there.
From 2013-16, fourteen-hundred lifers were released from prison. If environment were a “controlling” cause of an inmate’s behavior, then no lifer would make parole, let alone fourteen-hundred in three years. Furthermore, a more recent study conducted by Stanford in which they tracked 80 “murderers” who were paroled from 1990-2010, they found that five reoffended, but none for the crime of murder. If these prisoners had “internalized their roles” as criminals and killers to such an extent that it erased all sense of self and they were unable to mature and grow into their own personality, then they would not have made parole and remained free.
While it is clearly true that environment has a significant impact on the choices we make (especially when we are young), it is ultimately the individual who makes the choice to do right or to do wrong. In considering whether personality or environment is the driving force behind a person’s behavior, I would argue that environment effects an individual’s personality just as much as one’s personality, or grouping of personalities, effects an environment. For instance, there are many sociopathic and antisocial personalities in prison, and it is usually these prisoners who rise to the top of the food chain due to their charm, ability to take charge of a situation, and inspire fear with no qualms about using violence. Mafia leaders who run the prison gangs obviously fit this profile and are not effected by the prison environment, so much as they thrive on it as contributors to its harsh existence. As my cellmate, Scott, explains:
“Why’d I go SNY (Sensitive Needs Yard, the equivalent of ‘protective custody’)? Because the shot callers somehow got it into their heads that I was supposed to stab a lieutenant. I thought about doing it since I am a lifer and had nothing to lose. I once hated the prison guards and resisted them as much as possible based simply on their job title and the fact that they were in control. Plus, I’ve seen them do some messed up stuff. As time has gone on, I’ve just learned to avoid them and, even though they still agitate me from time to time, I’d rather just go to my cell and listen to some music or something than get into a fight and end up in the hole.”
Scott has served twelve of a fifty-five to life sentence, and this is an attitude that I find prevalent among long term offenders who have a decade or more under their belt. Instead of allowing our environment to control us, we find a way to maneuver. That takes personality.
Works Cited
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 5/18/16:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_Prison_experiment
4/13/16
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