Why You Can't Figure Out Who You Are (part 1)

Rebellious Professor + Broke Students = A Good Story. In 1971, Phillip Zimbardo set up a study on human behavior. 24 students from Stanford would be chosen for this study and they would be paid $15 a day for what was supposed to be a 14 day...

Written by
Curtis Hunnicutt
Published on
January 14, 2022
Read time
Why You Can't Figure Out Who You Are (part 1)

Photo Credits: 

Stanford Prison Experiment - Guards and Prisoner - SimplyPsychology.org


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“Human behavior is incredibly pliable, plastic.”
Phillip Zimbardo

In 1971, Phillip Zimbardo set up a study on human behavior. 24 students from Stanford would be chosen for this study and they would be paid $15 a day for what was supposed to be a 14 day experiment. 12 students would become guards and 12 would become prisoners. The guards were given sunglasses and name tags and a uniform and told that they were important.

The prisoners, however, were arrested by real police officers, fingerprinted, blindfolded and given an open gown with a number on it. When the blindfolds were finally taken off of them they were in a prison. (In reality, they were in the Stanford psychology department basement that had been converted.)

Each hour that passed, hostility and uncertainty grew. Within 48 hours a prisoner had their first mental breakdown. By 2 am the next morning a prisoner was physically dragged from their cell. On the final day of the experiment, the guards forced the prisoners to play a game in which one prisoner was made do get on all fours and play the camel while the other prisoner was the “hump”. It got weird.

Over the course of the experiment, there were odd sexual acts performed, violence, sleeplessness and a lot of absurd conflict. Zimbardo ended the study on day 6 because it got completely out of hand.

Afterwards, many of the prisoners said that those 6 days did not represent an experiment to them, but a living hell. One of the guards later admitted the he started to see the prisoners as less than human. Less than a week ago these were just fellow students — what changed?

During the experiment a priest came to visit the prisoners and something interesting took place; the prisoners were not introducing themselves by their names, but the number that had been placed on their chest.

6 days into this experiment and their identity, who they thought they were, had been stripped from them. The guards became guards and the prisoners became prisoners. One report during the experiment read,“Guards are totally absorbed in the illusion of the prison”.

The bizarre part of this whole situation was that, at any time the prisoners chose, they were free to leave.They signed a document stating they were not required to stay in the prison. But, if you believe you’re a prisoner, where else would you be?

Environment shapes identity.

Our experiences, how we perceive them and the opinions of others shape a version of us that we choose to embrace. If people tell you that you’re funny when you’re a kid, and you believe them, you start to try and make people laugh. Over time, you get more laughs and get better at making people laugh and it reinforces what you were told. Eventually, you embrace that you are a funny person. If a day comes when you no longer get the laughs, who are you? When who you believe you are is taken away or lost, what are you left with?

When your identity is rooted in that which fades away, who you believe you are fades with it.

The more experiences we have that align with this identity we have created, the more this identity has hold on us; whether we like who we’ve become or not. We get so buried in it that we can’t see a way out.

If it only took 4 days to strip the identity away from these people, how deeply buried are we in this illusion of who we think we are? And whether our prison looks like a detention center or a corner office, we are trapped by our own doing, trying to figure out who we are.

Our environment has shaped us, and our environment will always shape us, consciously or subconsciously — it is inevitable. We can’t choose whether or not our environment shapes us, but we can choose our environment.

One of the most interesting observations from this study, was that of the role of Phillip Zimbardo. In the experiment, his role was the warden of the prison. During this entire experiment, as he watched, it seemed he never grasped the ridiculousness of the events taking place. The situation had become violent, sexual and out of hand. Even Zimbardo, the conductor of the experiment became blind to the insanity of what was happening. He only came to his senses once his girlfriend came to visit and witnessed what was actually happening. Everybody involved just began to play the role they were told to play, like puppets on a string.

Zimbardo thought he was above it; that he could be a part of the experiment without becoming a part of the illusion.

Are you choosing to be trapped in a role that someone else wants you to play?

Do you have a specific design you are supposed to uncover?