I think it’s common to underestimate the impact of our “life environment” on who we are and who we become. And the impact on “who we are” can happen amazingly quickly.
One particularly drastic example is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment where college students truly became who they were expected to be (either prisoners or guards) in a matter of days. The experiment was originally designed to run for two weeks but needed to be shut down after only six days because the behaviors that we born of the environment became too extreme.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is certainly a very extreme situation. However, I believe that the basic principle it demonstrates — we are strongly (but fortunately not completely) molded by our environments — is directly relevant to our daily lives … or at least calls into question some common beliefs. Some examples:
- Are the common tensions between employers and employees really a result of employers and employees each having inherent flaws? Or could it just be a product of employers and employees falling into their respective roles in the employer-employee relationship?
- Is the large imbalance between the number of men and women in math/science/engineering really the result of inherent differences between men and women? Or is it a result of years of expectations that boys and girls have different capacities when it comes to mastery of technical skills and concepts?
- Are war atrocities due to the inherent evilness and sadistic nature of the soldiers involved? Or could the war environment be pushing the human psyche into a regime that leads to these unforgivable behaviors?
I recently ran across a few interesting blog entries that discusses the concept of life being a mirror that influences who we become and how we feel about ourselves.
The fundamental idea is that existing in an environment that fits our talents and personality allows us to live to our fullest potential. Our task then is to find our ways to put ourselves into environments and situations that will help shape us into the people that we want to be.
While we may want to believe that who we are/become is something intrinsic that comes completely from within, it is important to acknowledge the strong impact of the environment we live in and the situations we face in life. If we accept this fact, then at least there’s a chance that we can rise above our situation and become the people that we truly want to be … not merely by trying to change who we are from within but also by changing the external world that we choose to interact with.
Copyright © 2010 Kevin T. Chu