The debate between the importance of nature versus nurture in human development is one that has spanned centuries. Some scientists and researchers believe that human behavior is shaped largely, and sometimes solely, by genetics and factors not related to the environment in which one is raised. On the other hand, are researchers who posit that regardless of genetics and biological factors, setting up certain environments can lead to specific outcomes in humans. One of the most famous experiments which unexpectedly shed light on the topic of nature versus nurture was the Stanford prison experiment. In this study, the researcher took a heterogeneous sample of young, male, college students from Stanford and placed them in a strategically set environment. As a result of these similar backgrounds, assumptions and interpretations can be made about the effect of the environment on behavior.
Phillip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind this experiment, took Hobbes’s primary state of nature, which is a state of war, and used it to fuel his experiment. Phillip Zimbardo conducted this experiment on August 14-20th of 1971, in the United States, at a time before strict ethical laws regarding experiments were enacted. As such, the experiment that he conducted could no longer be considered ethical today. For this experiment, Phillip picked a handful of young, healthy, Stanford college students and randomly assigned them to play the role of either a prisoner or a guard.
Throughout the entire movie, it is clear that the guards abuse their powers and take advantage of the assigned role of the guard. In particular, this is evident in the first few scenes of the movie where each prisoner is instructed to call the guards by nothing other than “Mr. Correctional Officer.” Those who do not comply with these orders suffer a penalty. In the Stanford prison experiment, after some chose not to comply with the orders, they received certain consequences. Eventually, these prisoners and other prisoners who observed the behaviors and consequences began to shape their own behaviors (as a result of the environment).
During this experiment two factors were at play: behavioral condition techniques and the resulting consequences on the nature versus nurture debate. Zimbardo, with the help of his “prison guards” executed the rules for conditioning very well and the prisoners (who were formerly healthy college students) began to take on the role of a prisoner, following the orders of those in charge. Many behaviors were shaped in these young men as a consequence of being placed in this environment. In particular, they could only eat at a certain time, no matter how hungry they were. Those who resisted were put in “the hole” and others observed the consequences of not following the rules.
In sum, Phillip Zimbardo took a group of 24 young men who had never committed a crime and who had not been previously incarcerated and placed them in an environment which shaped their behaviors in completely different ways. He set up an environment in which they eventually learned to stopped using their names in favor of numbers which were on their shirts. This experiment, though not necessarily designed to test the nature versus nurture debate, can be viewed as an important, real-word example of how environments can have substantial effects on behaviors. Because these college students were healthy and well-functioning prior to the experiment, one could argue that they were on a nearly equal genetic playing field prior to the experiment. As such, conclusions made from this study suggest that the only factor that was changed was the environment, and the environment served to change behaviors in these formerly mentally healthy men.