A Dab into Social Psychology: The Obviousness of Why We Do What We Do (sometimes)

Are you familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment?

The experiment was conducted by Professor Phillip Zimbardo. It had a simple purpose to identify how subjects (college students) behave in a prison environment after being randomly assigned their roles. Some were assigned the role of guards and the others of prisoners; to be incarcerated publicly, and transferred to the make shift prison in the basement of the university. No rules or codes of conduct were set forth for either roles and the experiment showed hard results. Mainly, brutality and sadism ensued from the previously determined psychologically healthy guards, and depression and rage from the similarly tested innocent student prisoners.

Professor Zimbardo had to end the experiment after one week because of the adverse effects that environment was causing the participants. And the biggest finding was that environment heavily impacts the behavior of humans. The statement sounds like an obvious one, but it can go farther into why we choose to do what we do, say what we say and behave negatively or positively.

Many Americans thought of the Obama presidency as the clear line propagating the United States into a post racial world; where equality, equity and freedom would no longer be influenced by color, race, gender or religion. Except, people’s behavior was somewhat a function of that specific environment. Racist remarks where not accepted because the face of authority said and showed otherwise. However, fast forward to today, and a lot of the skeletons in people’s closets have stepped out into the sun and all kinds of discriminatory slurs have become to some extent no matter how muffled, tolerated but not without contest. Why? Because the current environment allows it, it actually is built on it. Triumphant political discourse dismisses opponents based on how they look, how they speak and other attributes that have no relation to political merit. The fact that the face of authority is President Donald Trump who is publicly against political correctness and an improved social contract, the stage is set for an environment of negative social interactions.

So, this is not about blaming our environment for our behaviors whether positive or negative, but it is about acknowledging its power to influence us. Values tend to be taught, and acquired over long periods of time, and we favor those who have values that coincide with ours, because we have an inclination to believe that we are doing what is right to some extent. Except, our environment determines how right we are, not due to the innate quality of our intensions but because of what our values mean to others who share our environment.

It is then not strange to find social bubbles that are birthed by individuals aware of the influences of the environment and who distrust how it can change them with time. So our environment is not an absolute situation, we can operate within it, but we must be careful. Sometimes minute changes occur over time in our behaviors just because we were trying to fit in, get comfortable, or be less controversial, slowly then surely, our environment impacts our behavior. We then become what our environment allows us to be; someone we didn’t think we could be.

Do you want your behavior to be absolutely determined by the environment you live in?

It is a question many people get to ask themselves as they practice some soul searching. Those who have the power to step out of the comfort of being similar, tend to grow perspectives and start recommending change that might not be acceptable but often necessary. The key is to start with one’s self and understand that most environments will change, sometimes slightly and other times completely. So we must remain mindful of why we do what we do, how our reasons for certain choices play out and what we expect in return.

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